By Tracy Gantz
With apologies to the game of Monopoly, if you claim a horse in California, your horse will be “in jail” for 25 days. But unlike the real world, where jail means behind bars, racing jail simply means the horse cannot run again for the same claiming price or less for 25 days. If he races within that time period, it must be for at least 25% more than the price for which you claimed him.
Owners and trainers factor in jail time when they make their claims. They must either be willing to race for a higher claiming price or wait 25 days before next starting the horse.
Often, that gives the trainer time to assess his new charge. A trainer may decide to use different equipment on the horse, train him for a different distance or surface-any number of options that might move the horse up in class. If the horse has a physical problem, claiming jail can ensure that a horse be given some time instead of quickly being dropped into a lower-level race in the hopes he will become someone else’s problem.
Tom Robbins, vice president-racing at Del Mar and a consultant with Fairplex Park, has worked as a racing secretary at every major California racetrack. In his experience, claiming jail protects the horse, the owner, and the betting public, especially with today’s higher purses.
“I’ll give you an example,” Robbins said. “Without claiming jail, someone could reach in for $20,000 at Del Mar, claim a horse, and run it back three days later for $12,500. Let’s assume the horse won for $20,000. If it runs back for $12,500, it will likely win and the owner will lose the horse. The purse and the claiming price would more than cover the $20,000 plus sales tax that it cost to claim the horse.”
Running a healthy horse again that quickly could shorten his racing career. Running a horse back who has a problem is even more likely to hasten the end of his racing days.
In addition, Robbins said, dropping a horse quickly makes a very unattractive betting proposition. “If a horse runs back that quickly for a lower price,” Robbins said, “either there is something wrong with the horse or it’s going to win at short odds.” That also makes the race harder to fill, certainly a concern in these days of short fields.
“We’ve done a little bit of tinkering over the years,” Robbins said. “We changed claiming jail from 30 days to 25 days because sometimes those races will fall just short of the 30 days. There are a lot of considerations when writing a condition book. That same race might be offered again in 28 days. With the 30-day rule, the trainer would miss that race, and it might be another 10 days before it was offered again.”
Most states have claiming jail rules similar to California’s. Claiming jail in Washington state and Kentucky lasts 30 days. Arizona also has a 30-day rule, but it applies only to claimed horses that win the race in which they are claimed. Some states, such as Delaware, have repealed their claiming jail rules. The California Horse Racing Board considered repealing the rule in 2001, but decided against the change when groups such as TOC, California Thoroughbred Trainers, and the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association supported keeping claiming jail intact.
Claiming jail also prohibits a claimed horse from racing outside of California until the close of the meeting where it was claimed unless the horse competes in a stakes race. That rule is designed to keep horses in California. (All Northern California fair meetings, including Fresno, are considered one meeting, so horses claimed on the fairs cannot race out of state until after the Fresno meet ends in October.)
“We don’t want people coming in raiding our horses,” Robbins said. States with purses enhanced from slot machine revenues offer such rich claiming purses that horsemen there have gone to other states to find horses ready to run. “What often happens,” Robbins said, “is that we tend to see a little more claiming activity at the end of a meet. I’d actually like to see that rule be even tougher.”