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The Winner's Circle

Owning Thoroughbreds Is an Expensive Gamble Offering Great Rewards--and Costly Losses
John Lee
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

(continued from page 6)

Horses sold privately are usually ready to race, giving the buyer a quick entrée into the action. The potential buyer can see the horse run and conduct a thorough veterinary exam. There is time for rational evaluation, as opposed to the hyper-emotional, competitive nature of auctions. A typical private purchase requires an inquiry to the current owner, an inspection, the negotiation--which should include a thorough study of the pedigree and race record--and, finally, a written Agreement of Sale and Purchase. It's probably not a bad idea to do a lien search, and of course demand the horse's Jockey Club certificate before closing the sale. (The Jockey Club is an organization that serves as North America's thoroughbred registry.)

Racing has various levels that open up as you get inside that world. One of the most peculiar and pervasive is the claiming game. Seventy percent of races run in the United States are claiming races, and they offer a route into thoroughbred ownership best left to the wise guys. Here's a dry, dictionary-style explanation for the quirky, colorful and sometimes cutthroat claiming game: In a claiming race, each horse entered is eligible to be purchased at a set price. The price is set by the racetrack. Claims must be made before the race by licensed owners or their agents who themselves have a horse registered to race at that meeting. When a horse has been claimed, its new owner assumes title after the starting gate opens, although the former owner is entitled to all purse money earned in that race.

It's an odd system, but it's the main mechanism by which competitive races are created through matching horses by their perceived financial value. In a typical $25,000 claiming race, you might find a few horses that have been running at that level with moderate success, a couple that have been running with little success at higher claiming prices, one that might be coming off a big win at a lower claiming price, as well as a mystery horse that has been running in much classier races.

Let's look at the mystery horse: He's got a clear edge in class, good breeding--on paper a bargain for $25,000. Yet why would his owners risk him in a claiming race? Are they desperate for a win or are they trying to unload damaged merchandise? Why was the horse wearing front bandages? Is he nursing an injury, or are they trying to make it look as if he has leg problems to scare off a claim? Or is he a decent horse that just doesn't fit his owners' goals? Strictly a game for wise guys.

Claimers have painted vivid colors into the thoroughbred landscape. Princequillo, claimed by Hall of Fame trainer Horatio Luro for $2,500 in 1942, developed into one of the best long-distance runners of all time and retired to become one of his era's top sires. Also in the '40s, a thoroughbred named Stymie ran in 14 rock-bottom claiming races before winning his first race. Trainer Hirsch Jacobs was an admirer of Stymie's paternal grandsire, the great Equipoise, so he put in his claim when he saw the horse running for a $1,500 tag. Stymie went on to win 35 races, 25 of them stakes, and retired in 1949 with then-record career earnings of $918,485. A race was later named for him at Aqueduct racetrack in New York.

If you're still interested in making a claim, heed the caution of Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, who says, "If you are going to claim horses, you better claim quite a few. That way the good ones can overcome the bad ones." Even Jerkens can't always tell the good from the bad. "Horses, being what they are, make a monkey out of you sooner or later."

But even the threat of embarrassment is unlikely to stop the avid horse owner. Once hooked, you are hooked forever. After all, nothing can take away the thrill of hearing "They're at the post" when your horse is in the starting gate.

For Further Information: The Blood-Horse (800/866-2361) and Thoroughbred Times (606/260-9812) are published weekly and cover all aspects of thoroughbred racing and breeding. Daily Racing Form (800/306-FORM) is a national newspaper published in an array of regional editions. It provides past performance information on the horses running at various tracks as well as news. Thoroughbred Daily News (908/747-8955) is a daily faxed to its subscribers, with breaking news and coverage of national and international racing. Many state breeding associations also publish magazines. A prospective owner should read Ainslie's Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing by Tom Ainslie (Simon & Schuster), a comprehensive and frequently updated guide to the sport. To learn more about the TOBA Prospective Owner Seminars and other related programs, or to receive a brochure entitled "Buying Your First Racehorse," contact Ann Stiltz, owner projects director, at 606/276-2291. Thoroughbred Racing Communications (212/371-5910), racing's national media relations office, can also help steer you in the right direction.

John Lee, a New York-based writer, has lost money at 29 racetracks around the world. A Guide to Thoroughbred Terminology


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