Claimers: 'A Lot Of People Care' About Welfare Of Racing's Working Class Horses - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Claimers: ‘A Lot Of People Care’ About Welfare Of Racing’s Working Class Horses

This is our fourth and final installment in the Claimers series. Find Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Behind the veil of a blue and white checker pattern, Twitter user @NotCloudyAllDay collects and publishes hundreds of race results every week, hoping to alert the public, rescues and racing officials to horses that might be at risk. Horses on the list are those with a history of poor performance, switches between barns, or exceptionally short periods between starts.

Almost without exception, the horses being tracked are claimers.

 

For many people on the outside, the claiming levels come along with concerns about the participants' welfare – an impression likely furthered by the fact claiming horses rarely make the news in a feel-good sort of way unless they have progressed out of the claiming ranks. The image is of a league where horses are inherently less sound, more likely to be running on drugs, where no one is watching the proceedings closely. Of course, this picture doesn't represent all claimers. Trainers of claiming-level runners have plenty of tales of hours spent in a stall nursing a claimer back to health, of horses who left the track and were sound in a second career, of grooms spoiling their $5,000 horses with as many peppermints as their stakes horses.

Every barrel has its bad apples, and for the public, it sometimes feels as though many of them settle at the claiming ranks. But where does this impression come from – and is it valid?

The Equine Injury Database does not release data dividing horses by racing class due to track disparity (a $40,000 claimer at Keeneland is not equal to a $40,000 claimer at Turfway Park, for example), so there's no way to know through that data if horses in claiming races are inherently more likely to suffer fatal injuries. We do know a horse's risk for fatal injury increases when he changes barns: a horse's risk for fatal injury is 60 percent higher if he has been with his trainer for 30 days when compared to his risk after four years.

We also know slightly more medication violations take place at the claiming level compared to other types of racing, though not as many as the public may believe. Of the medication rulings listed on ThoroughbredRulings.com from California, New York, Florida and Kentucky in 2015 (111 in total), 82 percent took place for claiming horses. Best estimates have the prevalence of claiming races nationally around 70 to 75 percent. Notably, only one of the three Class 1 violations in that time frame were found in a claiming horse.

When it comes to soundness, it would seem the best measure available is the veterinarian's list. California is the only state which publishes its list complete with a historical database. As of mid-September, 477 horses had been added to California's list for various reasons including medication use, illness and unsoundness;  225 of those 477 — 47 percent – were horses that made their last starts in a claiming race before being added to the list for unsoundness.

Dr. Rick Arthur, Equine Medical Director, CHRB

Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), cautions this isn't the most accurate way to measure the soundness of the population, however.

“Because of the claiming rule, claiming horses get a disproportionate examination because all claimed horses are examined post-race in a specific soundness examination, whereas stakes horses may not necessarily be examined,” Arthur said. “I don't think that claiming horses are necessarily unsound. I don't really think that's an issue; I do think horses that continue to drop down the ladder are certainly horses you need to be concerned with. The problem with claiming is it turns the horse into a commodity.”

Regulators and railbirds aren't the only ones worried about horses that stay in training long after they've stopped being successful.

Now-retired Gary Contessa assistant John Diaz said the question of claiming's perception isn't just about how long the horses run, but where they go when they retire.

“You spend more time with these horses than your boyfriend or girlfriend, and your family. I try to tell [our grooms], 'Don't get close to them,' and then we go in and bawl when we lose the horse,” said Diaz. “I do, I love them. Besides my kids, they're the biggest part of my life. So when you go somewhere and see the ankles, just the way the horses look, it breaks your heart. You're just like, 'Man, why is he still running? And where is the owner he made $600,000 for?'

John Diaz checks on a horse in Contessa's shedrow

“It's hard, but you've got to find homes for these guys when they're done. It's not like the old days where you could say, 'Ok, he's done. Que sera, sera.' A lot of people care, and on the other end of that, god forbid one of the horses you gave to this nice lady who's going to give him a retirement home shows up in a kill pen somewhere.”

One of the people who cares is Anna Ford, Thoroughbred program director at New Vocations. Ford estimates 70 percent of the horses her organization rehomes made their last start in claimers; she finds the physical condition of a $50,000 claimer versus a $2,500 claimer can often be different.

At the same time, Ford has had old war horse types that retire serviceably sound, and she routinely works with certain ownership groups that refuse to drop a horse beyond a certain tag. In her experience, a horse's soundness level at retirement is as much or more about the people around him than his racing level.

“I think obviously claiming races have their place and they are a large percentage of the races on a card so they're necessary. I think that any system, if it's not used properly, can be abused,” Ford said. “The claiming system can be abused. My personal opinion is the number one reason a horse starts dropping in class is due to some physical condition, whether it's an injury, or a physical limiting condition of breathing or muscle fatigue. Being a pro-aftercare person, I do feel like owners and trainers who really care about the longevity of their horses' careers after racing should definitely consider when a horse is starting to drop, would it be better just to retire him?

“I do wonder when we get a horse (into New Vocations) who didn't hit the board in his last 10 starts — should that continue? Did that benefit that horse? But it is somebody else's property, and they're trying to fill races.”

Arthur believes the mission of aftercare organizations and racing secretaries alike is made more difficult by the racino model. In the past, slow horses fell through the ranks and across circuits until they found a place to settle. Now, a slow but serviceably sound horse is a valuable commodity at a racino where purses pay out well past the top three finishers. Arthur recalled one horse who left California and won $30,000 in West Virginia in 30 days despite failing to win a race.

It's very expensive to keep horses in training in California or New York,” Arthur said. “The horses that used to bounce along the bottom and fill those races, kind of keep the population up, those horses all end up at the racinos and just keep running. With the foal crops down the way they are, there's just not enough horses to keep everybody happy.”

There's also less incentive for owners of non-winners at racino tracks to call New Vocations or fret too much if their horses look like consistent underperformers.

One person likely to notice if claimers are being run often and with little success is Twitter user @NotCloudyAllDay, who declined to be identified by name but is a lifelong racing fan and retiree living east of the Mississippi River. @NotCloudyAllDay spends 40 to 60 hours a week pulling and analyzing data on horses that may be in trouble, based on the frequency of their starts, age, poor performance, frequent barn changes or connection with trainers known to race horses frequently or utilize high-risk auctions. Once a horse goes on the list, it is tracked for the rest of its life. Sometimes, horses fall off the radar. Other times, the Twitter reporting directs connections to help a horse in trouble.

“All I do is find horses that need some help (or let others point them out) and report how they are doing,” said @NotCloudyAllDay. “Do take a look at the “Rescued or Located” section of the Horse Watch. Those horses are now safe, regardless of how that was done. It's such a joy to add a name to that list. What is horrifying, however, is the much longer list of those who have dropped out of sight – with no way to find how or where they are.”

In fact, racetrack officials in one state did once identify poor performers at a greater risk of fatal injury. In January 2015, the New York Racing Association implemented emergency measures in response to an increase in fatalities at Aqueduct. NYRA refused entries to horses that had competed within 14 days, raised the lowest level of maiden claimers from $12,500 to $16,000 and created an official “poor performer” list for horses losing races by 25 lengths or more. Poor performers were subsequently required to work four furlongs in :53 or better.

NYRA still maintains that list of poor performers, although the 14-day requirement was rolled back just a month after it was announced. California stewards also maintain a poor performer list and require horses to work off it, although there's no state code for what must happen to a consistently poor performer.

“This rule served a purpose through a difficult period of time. We appreciate the understanding and support of our horsemen,” Martin Panza, senior vice president of NYRA racing operations, told the Daily Racing Form at the time New York rolled back the 14-day rest requirement.

As of late 2017, the list maintained by @NotCloudlyAllDay numbers 306 horses actively running with several hundred more fallen off the radar. A daily entry key guides 1,500 followers to see which watch list horses are entered on a given card. It's rare a horse on the day's entries breaks its cycle and wins; not-so-rare they fail to finish the race.

Velvet Cat with Anna Ford, Program Director at New Vocations
Ohio

@NotCloudyAllDay's solution for the problem of at-risk claiming horses? Change the system.

“Here's an impossible wish for the claiming horses: the track racing managers need to find a different solution toward filling the card for the day than to draw upon horses who shouldn't be racing at all to begin with. Is there a solution at all other than fewer races, fewer race tracks, bigger draws for the real race horses? That's a problem for top management to solve – and we all wish they would do so ASAP.”

The other problem with reforming safety regulations for claimers, like everything else in racing, is uniformity. The whole nature of the racing 'circuit' is based around poor performers always having somewhere lower to fall. At some point, Ford believes, officials need to draw a line on when it is time for the horse to exit the system altogether.  

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