Time to Change the Claiming System
Sal Sinatra
Sal Sinatra, President and General Manager, Maryland Jockey Club

STUART S. JANNEY: Sal Sinatra has been president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club since December 2014. Before that, he spent 15 years at Parx Racing as the vice president of racing and racing secretary.

Early in his career he developed computer software for the racing and gaming industries. Today, he’s going to share some interesting ideas he has about the adoption of a new system for classifying claiming horses.

He believes the system would enhance equine safety, make ownership more sustainable, and make races more competitive.

As you listen to him, keep in mind that claiming races made up nearly two-thirds of the races run in the U.S. and Canada in 2019.

On a personal note, as I've had a chance to hear Sal’s presentation prior to the conference, I was struck by how important the subject is and how our claiming system really does cry out for change. This is an issue that needs to be addressed.

SAL SINATRA: Good morning. I would first like to thank Chairman Janney and The Jockey Club for giving me the opportunity to address you on a topic that I am both deeply familiar with and bothered by, and that's claiming races.

My name is Sal Sinatra, and as you can see from my bio, I have spent my entire career in racing. Our sport has been recently criticized for lack of attention to horse safety and integrity, which we have tried to improve upon. Our industry has rolled out many initiatives, such as medication reform, safer surfaces, better vet protocols, and continuing education.

But my expertise is racing, and more specifically, the racing office and race conditions. Being a lifer I ask myself, ‘What can I do to make this sport safer? How can I improve the sport?’

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 nauseum.

Claiming races are, in a nutshell, races in which horses can be purchased before the race for the claiming price listed in the program. 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.

My journey delving into this problem started with the 2011 racing season while I was at Parx. There was an increase of fatalities with the infusion of purse subsidies. I analyzed these past performances and I was struck by the number of horses that were in claim races.

Here are my findings. Nothing earth shattering but noteworthy for this presentation.

Most of these horses had less than 15 career starts with four or more trainers. The most notable ranges were three-year-old fillies and they were claimed between $7,500-$15,000. Purses on these races were triple or higher than the actual claiming price.

It has become apparent to me that the classification of horses through the claiming model is broken. Claiming races comprise about 80% of the races in the U.S., and therefore have the most influence on the product we offer our owners and our fans.

Idealistically, the thought was to raise purses to help owners of claiming horses pay their bills and upgrade their stock over time. Instead, we have created an arena that has become a race to the bottom with horses being dropped in claiming price and repeatedly claimed as a matter of arbitrage.

Economics plays a major role in how each owner and trainer builds their respective stables. In 2000, the average claiming price for a horse was $13,793; 20 years later, in 2019, it was $13,638, basically unchanged.

However, the average purse in 2000 was $18,579, and by 2019 it was $32,257, an 80% increase. Because of claiming, besides buying a horse directly, owners basically have basically two options to build their stables. One option is that an owner can claim an active horse and immediately run the horse to earn back his investment, the claiming price.

The other option is for an owner to buy or breed a horse to race. But paying a modest stud fee and having a horse prepared for the races by, say, his mid-2-year-old year, could cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000. I can state this from experience, as I have a 3-year-old homebred readying for the races, a yearling on the farm getting legged up, and a mare currently in foal.

But what happens when a horse gets to the races and you find out he has average ability? Do I enter him for a maiden $15,000 where he can be competitive but are likely to lose your horse and a significant investment? That horse you bred, watched grow, and were 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's 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.

So what do these owners do? What can we do for their horse? The owners who try to protect their investment and their animal will most likely run the horse over his head hoping to get lucky.

Unfortunately, they wind up running against previously claimed horses that are dropped in value, have the edge, are usually the heavy favorites, which then offers little to no gambling value to our fans.

This scenario happens daily and affects our sport in a bevy of areas. First, the risk-reward for owners is too great, disheartening, and unsustainable.

Second, it affects the number of starts and eventual field sizes we are offering our fans. Claiming horses are spotted where the connections feel they can win, but they must risk losing their horse and therefore wait to run in the ideal spot.

Owners cannot afford to try different things. They can't try the grass, a distance race, a change of equipment. I believe this a contributing factor of why horses don't race as often annually.

Horses made one less start in 2019 than they made in 2000. And while that doesn't sound like much, that has affected field size by .6 horses per race. In a ten-race card that represents eight horses, or possibly an additional race.

If you poll my peers, they will agree that claiming has basically eliminated smaller stables, and by smaller, I mean those with five to 15 horses. Instead, we have high-percentage, aggressive stables that dominate our races and claim the smaller guys out of business.

What’s the solution? I believe there are two options to repair the claiming model. The first suggestion is that every track in America triple or quadruple the claiming prices while leaving the purses at the same levels. This would help owners who develop young horses to breed to race, because they would be risking their claiming-class horses for market value.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of all tracks doing this simultaneously would be a struggle and pure fantasy.

The other option is to adopt a new system to classify claiming horses where they could be competitive with no risk to be claimed, such as a ratings system. Ratings are used throughout Europe and Australia. They are used in steeplechase racing and to some extent in Standardbred racing, all with success.

Implementing a ratings system would have a myriad of benefits to American racing. Ratings would group horses of like abilities, creating a more competitive race, and ultimately a more interesting betting option for fans. Even horses with lesser abilities could find their level, and their owners could enjoy them without losing their investment.

This would eliminate the, “drop them and lose them” mentality. It would eliminate suspicious behaviors, and it would force horses that improve dramatically to be moved up in class rather than jamming in and beating the same horses day in and day out.

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.

If our industry is looking to grow products worldwide, it would benefit us to not only offer a better product, but one that uses a system that is understood in other countries. American sports in general all rely on ratings. Pitchers have a WHIP rating; batters have an on-base percentage, quarterbacks have a QBR.

We need to rate our horses to be mainstream and palatable to any sports fan, particularly with the onset of sports wagering and fantasy sports competing for our wagering dollars.

We derive and maintain past performances. We protect this data and it’s the life-blood of qualifying and handicapping races. This data is the foundation to deriving a rating.

There are myriad ratings that individuals have come up with, both for their own use and for resale, and many algorithms have been written just to handicap.

I strongly feel that the time is ripe to adapt, adopt, or create another method to rate horses. There can also be other avenues for claiming owners and trainers to acquire horses, such as auction races, paddock sales, private sales, and more horses in training sales.

All of us today have an obligation to our fans to grow our sport, protect the owners of our sport, protect their investment, and most importantly, protect the horse.

I believe that rating races should be considered and implemented to the fullest of these obligations.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

STUART S. JANNEY: Sal, thank you very much for your remarks. I hope this will spur some real thought in how we can make the claiming game a more effective part of racing.

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