03/23/2012 11:52 am ET Updated May 23, 2012

Change New York Claiming Rules

Back in December 2011, on the Friday before Christmas, a report from the New York State Task Force on Retired Racehorses was submitted to Governor Andrew Cuomo. In the report were recommendations for securing responsible and humane retirements and second careers for race horses, both thoroughbred and standardbred.

I was a member of the task force. I participated in the drafting and editing of the report. The report's recommendations deal with funding streams for racehorse retirement (using no public monies), mandatory education for licensing and renewals for owners and trainers and best practices to enable healthy retirement and diverse second career opportunities for racehorses.

One area of specific interest under the legislation that charged us with our duties is the section covering reviewing training regimens to maximize the likelihood that our racehorses would have a future after their racing days are over.

Specifically, the task force calls for transparency, accountability and common sense practices for putting the safety and the best interest of the horse first. It's not rocket science.

New York's winter racing colony runs on the inner track at Aqueduct where this year there was an unprecedented number of catastrophic injuries -- fatal breakdowns -- through March 18. Theories are in play about the safety of the dirt surface and the effect of the substantially increased purses due to the influx of purse money from the recently opened racino at Aqueduct. In a letter to NYRA, Governor Cuomo expressed his concern about the breakdowns and advised NYRA to hire investigators to come up with some answers.

In the interim, NYRA has announced that it will be changing its purse structure for claiming races and raising the level of the lowest level claimer from $7,500 to $10,000 on April 4. Also, due to the warm weather, racing at Aqueduct is on the main track, off of the winterized inner track.

FYI -- In the NYRA glossary of terms:

Claim or claiming: Process by which a licensed person may purchase a horse entered in a designated race for a predetermined price. When a horse has been claimed, its new owner assumes title after the starting gate opens although the former owner is entitled to all purse money earned in that race.

Claiming race: A race in which each horse entered is eligible to be purchased at a set price. Claims must be made before the race and only by licensed owners or their agents who have a horse registered to race at that meeting or who have received a claim certificate from the stewards.

Under the NYRA current condition book, the lower level claiming horses run for tags as low as $7,500. On March 21, a $7500 claiming race had a $29,000 purse. There is speculation that inflated lower level purses lead to trainers running horses that may have physical issues or be "sore" yet sound enough to pass the pre-race veterinary inspection.

If a trainer claims a horse in a race, that horse is his, no matter the outcome. In the best case scenario, the horse wins and the trainer takes a healthy horse back to the barn. In the worst case, the horse has a breakdown, has to be euthanized, and the trainer who put the claim in owns the dead horse.

It's not a pretty picture, but some trainers will drop a horse into a cheap claimer in order to divest themselves of a horse with a problem. For example, if a solid allowance-level horse is entered in a $8,000 claimer at a distant track, that sends up a flag that the horse may have problems. Another trainer may put in a claim on the horse, hoping that he can get a bargain and work with it. Sometimes this happens, the records show that a lot of times it doesn't.

We do not have to have this scenario in New York. The Retired Racehorse Task Force recommendations specifically address keeping claiming horses as safe as possible through changing the claiming rules. We recommended adoption of the racehorse safety guidelines advocated by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP):

The New York State Racing and Wagering Board should review all rules relating to claiming to ensure that they are humane and less likely to encourage a compromised horse in the claiming box. Ideas to be considered (as proposed by the AAEP) include:

  • Any horse that tests positive for a prohibited substance should have the claim rescinded at the discretion of the buyer.
  • No claiming race should have a purse that exceeds the claiming price by more than 50 percent.
  • If a horse is claimed, it should not start in a claiming race for at least 30 days from the date of claim for less than 25 percent more than the amount for which it was claimed. (Note: this is already a NYRA policy.)
  • When appropriate, horses must demonstrate a workout between races that displays fitness and soundness.
  • Voidable claims: Claimed horses that do not finish a race or those that sustain a catastrophic injury during the race remain the property of the original owner at the option of the prospective new owner.

The infrastructure of racing regulation in New York is in flux. Governor Cuomo is intent upon merging the state's Racing and Wagering Board with the Division of the Lottery. While I can appreciate the initial upheaval that may result from these administrative changes, by delaying addressing the inequities and failures of current claiming practices, the racing industry, the horseplayers and fans, and most of all, the horses are the losers.