A suggestion from Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella that rules for claiming races be changed to protect against horses with physical problems being passed along as "hot potatoes" to someone else appears to be taking root.
"There's been a great response -- positive -- to it, and I think something will happen," Mandella said this week during the Symposium on Racing & Gaming in Tucson, Arizona.
Participating on a panel called "Equine Career Counseling," Mandella said that, in addition to his original idea that claims should be voided for horses that do not finish races, another possibility would be to change claiming events to races in which runners are sold through an auction system after they compete. That format would allow prospective buyers to examine horses' soundness immediately after racing and thus would be an incentive for owners and trainers to provide runners with rest or treatment if they have physical ailments rather than using medications that allow continued racing even if a problem is lurking.
"This would encourage people to stop and fix the problems," said Mandella, who first raised the general issues involving claiming races and unsound runners during the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in Lexington in October. He has strongly urged the industry to take action.
Ed Bowen, president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, which coordinated the summit with The Jockey Club, said on Wednesday at the Symposium that he thinks that American racing leaders will follow up on Mandella's proposal and make changes in the system.
"I think it's got a lot of resonance," Bowen said of reaction so far.
Some of those from which Mandella said he has received an initial positive response are Santa Anita Park Racing Secretary Rick Hammerle and John Harris, an owner and breeder who is a member of the California Horse Racing Board. Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director who also was attending the Symposium, agreed that some action would be in the best interests of both horses and prospective owners.
"There are different ways to slice this cake. We just have to figure out what works and is palatable," Arthur said, noting the high costs involved with some surgeries and resulting off time that lead to use of medications as temporary fixes. "The problem is that no one in horse racing ever likes to change."
Bowen said future debate on the overall topic likely would include how rules about voiding claims could be written to fairly encompass a variety of situations. For example, if a jockey pulled up a horse before the finish line, fearing something was wrong, but no physical problem was detected, perhaps a claim on that horse should not be voided. On the other hand, any new rules should not influence riders to avoid easing runners who are in distress, he said.
As far as an auction system goes, post-race sales have been conducted in England and were a part of early American racing tradition, although Bowen said those events, which were called "selling races," disappeared in the United States around the 1920s.
Regardless of which approach might be adopted, Bowen described the proposed changes as having an "exciting potential" to discourage the racing of unsound horses. There could be many benefits, including fairer and safer competitions and more opportunities for future careers for Thoroughbreds.
"To this day, we have far more people looking for sound racehorses to adopt than we have sound racehorses available for adoption," Diana Pikulski, executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, said while participating on the Symposium panel with Mandella.