Racing Safety: Whatever Happened To That Purse To Claim Price Ratio? - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Racing Safety: Whatever Happened To That Purse To Claim Price Ratio?

As regulators and veterinarians continue to put their heads together to examine the recent spate of fatalities at the Churchill Downs spring race meet, Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority CEO Lisa Lazarus said that “nothing is off the table” when it comes to preventing more fatalities – even, as we learned June 2, moving the meet to Ellis Park. But in a state like Kentucky whose safety and medication policies have been among the stricter regulations in the country before HISA, many insiders are left scratching their heads about what additional rules could help if the location switch doesn't do the trick.

Between HISA and Churchill, horses will now be subject to pre-entry scrutiny based on their training and performance record, with horses excluded from entries who have finished more than 12 lengths from the winner in their past five consecutive starts, and all horses limited to no more than four starts in a rolling 60-day window.

Read our previous reporting about whether Churchill's additional safety measures would have kept the fatally-injured horses from running their final races.

One reform that hasn't come up is a recommendation issued by the panel that reviewed 21 equine fatalities at Aqueduct in 2011-12: a cap on the ratio between claiming race purse and claim price.

The Aqueduct review panel included veterinarians Drs. Scott Palmer and Mary Scollay, retired jockey Jerry Bailey, and attorney Alan Foreman. Among other findings, the panel opined that part of the overall picture in that critical winter had been a significant increase in purses, which placed the earning potential of claiming horses far higher than the value of the horse (as determined by claiming price). In some cases, the purse value was as much as four times the claiming price.

Palmer, who was then a veterinary surgeon and later became the equine medical director for the New York State Gaming Commission, gave a presentation on this finding at a June 2019 meeting of the commission.

“We felt that part of the issue was that there was a disproportionate increase in the purses for the lower level of claiming races, which, in effect, commoditized the horses,” he said. “And by putting them at increased risk, there was less risk aversion going on, and we felt as though it was important that these purses be adjusted.”

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The panel recommended that the total purse be no more than 1.6 times the claiming price of the horse, the reasoning being that the winner's share of the purse should roughly equal or be less than the horse's value. The American Association of Equine Practitioners, in a white paper published in 2009, had already suggested that an imbalance between a horse's value and earning potential could encourage irresponsible behavior and suggested that no claim purse exceed the horse's price by 50 percent.

The suggestion was met with controversy, as many feared this restriction would make racing in New York less attractive to owners who had lots of other regional options. The 1.6 ratio was also never codified by the commission and after receiving pushback from stakeholders, Palmer – who was by then hired as equine medical director in New York – agreed that 2:1 could be acceptable.

“In discussion of this, the task force members approved that because, frankly, we had no scientific evidence to indicate there was any significant difference between 1.6 to one and two to one,” he said.

In 2018, Palmer said the commission received a formal request from the New York Racing Association to allow even more wiggle room because the tracks felt they were losing entries to others in the Mid-Atlantic that did not operate with the same restriction. In a 2021 interview with the New York Breeder, Martin Panza, then director of racing for NYRA, said that purses can't be double the claiming price in New York without Palmer's permission, and the highest Palmer would ever approve was 2.8 to 1.

Indeed, a survey by the Paulick Report showed that the vast majority of top racetracks do break through the 1.6 to 1 ratio on a typical card, though not necessarily for every race. In a look at entries for June 2, claiming races at Churchill Downs, Belmont, Gulfstream, Monmouth, Pimlico, Santa Anita, and Woodbine all had at least one claiming race that exceeded the 1.6 to one ratio, though some were only above the ratio for one of two claiming prices that were be offered in the conditions. Two of three Churchill claimers were over the ratio, and both of those had purses more than double the claim price. At Monmouth, four of five claimers exceeded the ratio, and included one race where the purse ($22,000) was more than four times the claim price ($5,000). Imbalances were more likely to occur with lower claiming prices (those under $10,000) but were not limited to this range.

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It seemed most likely for an imbalance to occur at tracks whose purses are supplemented by some kind of additional gaming revenue. Woodbine had all four of its claimers above the ratio, while the last Friday card at the recent Oaklawn meet had five of six over the 1.6 to one ratio.

In light of the Churchill fatalities, it's worth noting that two of the 12 equine deaths on the record at this writing came in races with $68,000 purses (before state-bred incentives) where the claiming price was $40,000 – over the ratio, but just barely. A third, Code of Kings, occurred in a paddock accident where the horse was running for a $30,000 tag in a $50,000 race, though his injury was the result of being startled at saddling time and not anything to do with his racing conditions.

In the end, Palmer told the New York commission in 2019, the reason for loosening the ratio was competition from other racetracks – but it also had to do with their results.

“There was original indifference to the issue, meaning the other racetracks in the mid-Atlantic area did not follow this rule and had higher purse to claim ratios,” he said. “And that seemed to work out okay for them. …They were not experiencing an increased rate of fatality in this group of races in the region around us.”

When the ratio became more relaxed, New York officials said they did add extra pre-race veterinary scrutiny for claiming horses.

Data from the Equine Injury Database suggests that claiming horses, which make up the majority of the American racing population, are at a higher risk for fatal breakdown than horses in non-claiming races, but the reasons why are myriad and not fully understood. Data from the EID demonstrates that any horse's risk of fatal injury increases when they move into a new barn, and decreases the longer they stay there — which could be a particular problem for horses who are claimed frequently. Lower claiming prices in relation to purse value could, theoretically, lead to a frenzy of claiming activity, which would change a horse's risk in this regard. For now, it seems the ideal purse to claim price ratio may remain elusive – and even more elusive is the ratio that will be tolerated by horsemen. The 1.6 ratio was in an early draft of HISA regulations, but was removed in 2021 after negative feedback.

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