Time for racing to claim a change

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Horse racing failed Change Of Command. Not because of drugs or racing surfaces or battery-powered buzzers or any other nefarious scheme on the list of the sport’s problems.

No, racing failed the gallant, giant bay gelding because of a far more fundamental flaw – claiming.

American racing is built on the claiming division. If you’re new, it’s the simple act of running a horse with a price tag. In theory, it’s a great leveler. Run your horse too cheaply, and you risk losing him. Run your horse too expensively, and you risk losing a race. Claiming is a way for a new owner to get in the game with a ready-made racehorse. Claiming is a way for owners and trainers who think they can improve a horse to bet on themselves and take a chance.

When you really think about it, however, claiming can be a negative for horse welfare and public relations.

Not all Thoroughbreds run in claiming races, at least not right away. The path is frequent and familiar, however. A horse wins a maiden race, a condition race or two, maybe even a stakes. At some point, short of being exceptional and/or a broodmare or stallion prospect, he or she will probably run for a claiming price.

It’s the business and, theoretically, it works.

Except it doesn’t. Not anymore. Not in today’s world of purses fueled by slots (where a horse “worth” $12,500 by the claiming-price definition can run for a $25,000 purse), instant media, constant public exposure and the shrinking foal crop. Now, it puts pressure on horsemen to win races, to make their stalls productive, to take chances with horses they might otherwise prefer to keep in the barn. 

Claiming gives owners and trainers a way to wash their hands of horses, to drop them, dump them, make them someone else’s problem. Claiming discourages stewardship, horsemanship, ownership. Claiming puts people trying to do the right thing in a tough spot. Claiming rewards those looking for a quick fix or an angle.

And a claiming-centered sport gives horses such as Change Of Command no options.

After winning eight times for his breeders Wayne and Juanita Morris, he ran for a $35,000 claiming price at Gulfstream Park last month. The son of Gators N Bears won and got claimed. Now he belongs to Ron Hendrickson and Gulfstream Park West-based trainer Jorge Navarro, who entered their new horse in Saturday’s Grade 2 Mac Diarmida against turf champion Main Sequence.

Change Of Command could win, which would be a huge story and some kind of return on the investment. He could also fail miserably and start a descent to racing obscurity, get claimed again, and again and again.

Trombetta and the Morrises didn’t want to lose Change Of Command. If you walked in the barn and tried to buy him for $35,000, they probably would have said no. But where else were they going to run? Like it or not, business decisions get made about horses. Change Of Command hadn’t won in 18 months. He’s 8 years old. He only races on the turf. He’s had his share of injuries and setbacks.

Trombetta knew it was a risk.

“Tough pill to swallow,” he said last week. “You feel like you lost a dog. I know the owner is sad, but it was just one of those things. Geldings that hit that level, if they’re honest, it’s open season. It’s not fair to run them where they can’t win.

“I haven’t found a way around that part of the game yet.”

Maybe it’s time racing finds a way. Other countries manage healthy racing industries without (or with very little) claiming. Maybe we can as well.

First, look at the regulations we have. Bring back the rule making horses step up a level after a claim to add some protection to existing connections. Look at the waiver claim rule in place in California and other states where trainers can declare a horse ineligible to be claimed if it has not started for 180 days or more. That last bit wouldn’t have helped Change Of Command, but it might help the next horse. Give owners a chance to bring a horse back off a layoff without risk, once.

Second, look at condition books. Write different races. Maiden, allowance, claiming, starter, optional claiming, bread, butter, spaghetti and meatballs. How about a place for non-winners of a race in 18 months? I’m not really a speed-figure guy, but how about a race for horses whose last 10 Beyers were below 90? Those two would have helped Change Of Command and probably a few others, too. For younger horses, why not races for the offspring of sires who stand for less than $10,000?

Third, study. Other racing countries rely on handicapping systems, which would be a wholesale change on this side of the Atlantic but maybe there’s a variation on the theme. Could horses be rated with a number (not necessarily a weight) and therefore slotted for certain races – for horses rated 0-60 or 61-80 or 101-120 or whatever. There are “selling” races in other countries, which is a variation on the claiming theme, but it’s more like an auction and owners have a chance to protect their horses.

Fourth, create more marketplaces. Fasig-Tipton, Keeneland, OBS, Barretts and others should hold more horses-in-training sales. Here’s a thought Keeneland, card non-claiming races this spring where entrants must be part of a one-day sale at the end of the meet. Encourage people to buy and sell horses, not claim or get them claimed. Develop that market, encourage shoppers from flat racing, jump racing, other horse sports, and we’ll all be better off. 

Fifth, reward animal stewardship. The Morrises could have kept their horse out of the claiming race or retired him or found him something else to do. But racing is a business and Change Of Command, like it or not, is part of that business. He ran where he could be competitive. They knew the risk, but there weren’t many alternatives – other than races with a higher claiming price, which don’t really solve the problem.

Sixth, think like an outsider. You really want to try to explain claiming to an animal-rights activist, a state legislator or a 60 Minutes host? “So, let me get this straight Horse Racing Person . . . a trainer can run a horse he or she no longer wants because it’s slow or has an ailment that really doesn’t look like one, and hope some other trainer claims it? No questions asked?”

This has nothing to do with Hendrickson or Navarro or Trombetta or the Morrises, or people who play the claiming game. It has everything to do with the racing model the industry provides for its participants. We can do better.