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The Ins and Outs of Claiming Your First Racehorse
Monday, June 6, 2005 - By Chris E. Wittstruck, Esq.

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Chris E. Wittstruck, Esq. 
Of the four traditional methods for acquiring a trotter or pacer, none is easier, quicker and less costly than claiming a horse off the racetrack. Many first-time owners obtain their initial campaigner through the claim box. Additionally, playing the claiming game can be one of the most satisfying aspects of Standardbred ownership.

The breeding of a horse requires a mare, stallion service fee, 11 months of gestation, staking fees and two years of care before the foal (hopefully) makes it to baby races. Purchase of an untested yearling at auction similarly requires spending thousands of dollars in staking fees and months of training bills. By contrast, the successful claimant spends his first dollar on the claimed horse the evening it is purchased. If healthy, the horse can race for the new owner within days. Moreover, while negotiations to purchase a horse privately require much skill and expense regarding valuation and health assessment, the claiming horse comes with his own set price tag and at least some current assuredness that the steed is race-worthy.

Here's a primer on understanding the rules and procedures that dictate the claiming process. Keep in mind that the regulations vary slightly among racing jurisdictions:

Claiming races generally: Claiming races aren't hard to find. Well over 50% of all races at harness tracks are straight claimers or conditioned events that provide for the offering of horses for claim at the option of the owner. Some races, called “claiming handicaps” allow an owner to offer a horse for claiming within a defined price range. The horses offered for more money are “handicapped” with outside post positions. Also, some racing jurisdictions provide for certain “allowances” based upon a horse's age or sex. For example, while a race might be carded as a $20,000 claimer, four-year-olds might be given a 25% allowance, thus raising their claiming level in the race to $25,000. In this way, an owner who has a significant investment in a younger horse or broodmare prospect can enter the horse in a competitive claiming class while ensuring that he or she will receive maximum value if the horse is claimed.

What's the relationship between claiming price and purse? The answer is nothing, except that most racing jurisdictions require claiming prices to be higher than the minimum purses offered. Simply, don't be confused: A claiming race with a $15,000 purse doesn't allow you to claim a horse for $15,000. You must read the claiming conditions of a race to determine the amounts for which the horses are offered; most tracks note the claiming price under a horse's head number in the program.

First Timers: The good news is that in many racing jurisdictions there is an open claiming policy, meaning that a non-licensed individual may claim a horse simply by filling out a form and identifying a licensed trainer to take possession of the horse in the event the claim is successful. Some states require the issuance of a “claiming authorization certificate” which is good for a short period of time. Many states require USTA membership before a claim may be made. Once a horse is claimed, the new owner must obtain a state-issued owner's license before the horse may be entered to race again.

Click here for information about state regulations regarding claiming and first time ownership:

Procedure to Claim: Generally, an individual must have on account with the racetrack an amount equal to the claiming price, applicable sales tax (yes, this is usually the purchaser's responsibility), cost of registration transfer and any other fee associated with the claim. The prospective claimant or his authorized agent (often a trainer) makes the claim by completely and correctly filling out a “claim slip.” The slip usually requires restating the race, claiming price, name and number of the horse as it appears in the program, a designation of the prospective claimant's trainer and a signature. Once completed, the slip is sealed in an envelope and dropped in the locked claim box, usually with 30 minutes of the start of the race. In many jurisdictions, the claim box remains sealed until after the race. In some states, claims may be announced prior to the post parade.

The “shake:” What happens if the claim box is opened and there are multiple claim slips in for a certain horse? Assuming that all slips are filled out in proper form and the necessary sums are on account for each prospective claimant, the judges determine the successful claimant by drawing a numbered “pill” from a shaker, in much the same way that post positions are drawn for a race card. The winner of the “shake” gets the horse. Claim slips are not given priority through time-stamping, nor can you gain advantage by offering to pay more than the claiming price. If there is more than one claim in on a horse, the new owner is determined solely by lot.

Risk of Loss: This is one of the most misunderstood aspects of claiming. Say a horse is entered in a race by his owner, Mr. Smith, and a proper claim is made by Mr. Jones. When does Mr. Jones become the owner of the horse? The rules state that when the starter yells, “go” and the race begins, Mr. Jones becomes “vested with title” to the horse. This means that if the horse breaks down at the half and is injured, Mr. Smith still receives the full claiming price from Mr. Jones through the track's bookkeeper. Mr. Jones gets possession of the horse in whatever condition it is in when it comes off the track. Further, if the horse dies in the race or must be humanely destroyed on the track and Mr. Jones did not obtain a “claiming policy,” a specialized type of short-term mortality insurance, he is out the full amount of the claim and is additionally responsible for disposal of the animal. Thankfully, these unfortunate scenarios are quite rare. Needless to say, in these instances, when multiple claims are in, the “winner” of the shake is obviously the person lucky enough to lose the shake!  

Assume the horse wins the race. Who gets the winner's share of the purse? Surprisingly, Mr. Smith, the programmed owner who declared the horse to the race, gets the full purse share, even though Mr. Jones had title and bore the full risk of loss for the animal during the race. If this sounds somewhat unfair, consider that if the horse does not run on Mr. Smith's account, Smith would have little motivation to enter the horse in a claimer. Why should Jones, who has not even taken possession of the animal, get money for a race that Mr. Smith invested all the resources to train up to? Clearly, by entering any race, including a claiming race, the purse money earned should and does go to the entering owner.

Void / Voidable Claim: Even though you have a claim slip in the box on a certain horse, there are instances when either a) the judges don't give you the claimed horse (void claim) or b) you can decide after the fact if you still want the horse (voidable claim).  

The judges will void a claim if the claim slip is filled out incorrectly (forget to name a new trainer, for instance) or you lack sufficient funds on account to cover the cost of the claim and all necessary related charges. Neither of these defects is curable after the fact. In certain jurisdictions, a positive finding for equine infectious anemia will also void the claim.  

A claim is voidable (may be voided at the option of the successful claimant) for a number of reasons. First, since states require post-race drug testing for all claimed horses no matter where they place in the race, a positive finding for an illegal medication, antibodies of certain drugs or a high carbon dioxide (TCO2) level may be presented. In such case, the new owner may elect to keep the horse or send it back to the original owner within a few days after the test. The same election may be made in the event a claimed mare is pregnant but was not declared as such prior to the race. Similarly, claims are voidable for certain horses that have been “nerved” (surgical removal of a nerve, called a neurectomy) or where the age or sex (gelding represented as a colt or horse) has been misrepresented.  

It is important to note that, save for these limited instances, claims are “irrevocable,” meaning that the new owner can't get out of the deal, even if the horse comes out of the race sick or injured.

Anti-collusion Rules: All jurisdictions maintain some level of control over the fairness and integrity of the claiming game through strict regulations. For instance, once a horse is claimed, it may not be transferred to another owner, except in a subsequent claiming race, for 30 days. This prevents “Mr. Frontman” from claiming a horse and transferring it to “Mr. Shady” the next day. Nor may there be an agreement not to claim or prevent someone from claiming a horse. Similarly, if a horse is scratched out of a claiming race, many states allow the horse to be claimed in its next start even if the subsequent race is not a claiming event, provided the start is within 30 days of the scratch. It is important to consult the specific claiming rules of the jurisdiction where you intend to claim to ascertain the “dos and don'ts” before you drop your slip in the claim box.  

Placing your horse: Another favorable aspect of the claiming game is that you enjoy complete freedom to immediately run your horse against horses you think he can beat. This means that if you claim a horse for $50,000, you may run it back the very next week for any amount you desire, including at or even below the claiming price. Thus, Standardbred claimers may be entered at their proper competitive level right off the claim. The only restrictive requirement usually in effect is that you may not race the horse at a track other than the track from which it was claimed for the balance of the meet or some other defined time. This requirement helps that track's racing secretary maintain a sufficient amount of horses in another important box: The entry box.

Finding the Right Horse: How do you find a horse to claim? Fortunately, the United States Trotting Association provides a free, internet-based listing of horses entered in upcoming claiming races indexed by claiming price, track, date, gait, age and sex. This highly useful database allows you to narrow down your potential choices based upon selected criteria.

Click here to find all horses entered in claiming races at the racetrack nearest you

After prospective horses are identified, checking pedigree and race records may be accomplished for a reasonable charge through quick and easy establishment of a PaTHWaY account.

Click here to establish an account and access information on the “ Pacing and Trotting Highway

Nothing beats the satisfaction of purchasing a “6” (thousand) claimer and improving it in a few weeks to the “10” claimer ranks, all along picking up checks. While tricky, claiming has the potential to provide instant gratification and economic success like no other aspect of the sport. Do your research and remember to identify your trainer. Hope to see you at the claim box real soon!

Chris E. Wittstruck, an attorney and Standardbred owner, is the founder and coordinator of the Racehorse Ownership Institute at Hofstra University , New York and a charter member of the Albany Law School Racing and Gaming Law Network.

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