Fewer claiming races, addition of rating system proposed

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Aug. 19, 2020

A Mid-Atlantic region racing executive has outlined a proposal that would reduce the number of claiming races in the United States and replace them with classified races based on a national rating system.

Sal Sinatra, President and General Manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, spoke of his concerns about the claiming system in America as part of The Jockey Club Round Table, which was pre-recorded and broadcast Aug. 16. Sinatra, who has been fine-tuning his proposal over the past year, previously worked as Vice President of Racing at Parx Racing and was Vice President and co-owner of TSNS Racing Software.

“Being a lifer I ask myself, ‘What can I do to make this sport safer? How can I improve the sport?’ ” Sinatra said. “As a former computer programmer, I consider race conditions, or the types of races offered, to be the foundation of a day at the races. The claiming race is the most frequently run race in the United States, and we have bastardized this category ad nauseam. No other category has forced us to enact rules upon rules.

“We have jail time that puts restrictions on new owners for a certain amount of time after a claim. We have waivers to protect horses from being claimed. We have voided claim rules to protect the claiming owner in case a horse is injured during a race. And we have subcategories that reduce claiming classes to algebraic equations.

“This category has also coined such tasteless phrases as, ‘Cut him in half and lose him,’ and, ‘Squeeze one more race out of him.’ As an industry, we have created a business arena that is both detrimental to the horse and unsustainable to the owners.”

Sinatra said a rating system like those used in other countries would benefit both equine and human participants. “Ratings would group horses of similar abilities, creating a more competitive race and ultimately a more interesting betting option for our fans,” he said. “Owners would be more willing to run their horses and try different options. I believe that protecting the owner’s investment over time would stabilize and actually grow the foal crop.”

In follow-up comments, Sinatra said he received positive feedback on the proposal. He said it could be launched regionally, and that individuals at New York and Pennsylvania racetracks have expressed interest in it.

“Everybody has ideas about how it should be done,” Sinatra said. “There has been a lot of positive feedback. It’s ripe to look at. What I’d like to see happen is the industry come up with some sort of algorithm to apply to existing races.”

Sinatra noted there would be a mix of rating and claiming races. “It would be too much of a culture shock to remove them all,” he said of claiming races. “This would give people a way to protect their horses.”

Statistics presented by Sinatra show that in 2000, the average claiming price was $13,793, and by 2019 it had decreased 1.1% to $13,638. On the other hand, the average purse in 2000 was $18,579, but in 2019 it was $32,257, an increase of 73.6%. He said tripling or quadrupling claiming prices to allow for some return on investment but keeping purses at the same level is not a viable option.

Sinatra said it can cost a breeder $50,000 to $100,000, even with a modest stud fee, by the middle of a horse’s 2-year-old year.

“What happens when a horse gets to the races and you find out he has average ability?” Sinatra said. “Do you enter him for a maiden $15,000 (claiming price) where he can be competitive but are likely to lose your horse and a significant investment? That horse you bred, watched grow, and was excited for is lost, and the new connections get a valuable commodity at a well-reduced rate of $15,000. That horse has now been devalued and now he has entered the claiming cycle. If he has any ability, he is likely to be recycled through the claim box until he can no longer race, or possibly worse.

“Few owners can withstand financial losses on investments like this for long. Few horses can endure multiple training methods, changing diets, and treatment.”

Various tracks in the Mid-Atlantic region, including those in Maryland, several years ago started writing waiver maiden-claiming races for state-bred horses that owners and trainers believe may not be up to competing in a maiden special weight. The idea is to give them an opportunity for some return on investment without having to risk them in a claimer.

(Photo courtesy of Jim McCue)