There were snickers throughout the Thoroughbred industry in 1998 when the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, in partnership with the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, announced a series of races for claiming horses.
Why would the industry invest any time in promoting the bottom-feeders? Would the Claiming Crown quickly be added to the long list of racing's start-and-stop projects?
But the Claiming Crown, inaugurated in 1999 at Canterbury Park in Minnesota, had more going for it than people realized. It's called the reality of racing: In 2014, claiming races (optional claimers not included) constituted 64% of total North American pari-mutuel races, and that has been the norm for decades.
There is another reason the event didn't end up in the can. It's called commitment. It didn't take long for organizers to realize nomination fees wouldn't support the purses, so Canterbury and the Minnesota Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association stepped up to provide the bulk of the $500,000-plus required to host the Claiming Crown at a time when the track struggled to maintain overnight and stakes purses.
The Claiming Crown became the main event of the Canterbury racing season, and it was held there 10 of the event's 16 consecutive years, the last time in 2010. Ever since the Minnesota track signed a 10-year, $75 million purse agreement with an area tribal community in 2012, it has focused on rebuilding the state's racing and breeding programs.
Gulfstream Park, which has hosted the series of lucrative starter allowance stakes since 2012 and will do so again Dec. 5, has taken it to another level because of built-in advantages: It can draw from a much larger horse population, and horseplayers are drawn to its product on a daily basis.
Last year the Florida track generated total pari-mutuel handle of $10.6 million—up from $8.8 million the previous year—on a card full of claimers, or former claimers. From a handicapping perspective, the large and challenging fields were a formula for success.
North American horse racing is diverse—which is a good thing—and therefore offers many entry points for prospective owners. The claiming game isn't perfect—it should be constantly monitored and tweaked for the protection of the horse and the betting public—but it generates revenue and opportunities for horses that can't compete at the sport's higher levels under its current structure.
This Saturday there will be nine Claiming Crown stakes worth a total of $1.1 million, roughly twice the amount of the early Minnesota years. It's something that not only survived but in recent years has thrived. Thoroughbred racing shouldn't take that lightly.