One day this winter, in between covering races at Laurel Park, I got a phone call from Georganne Hale. Could I come to the office of track president Sal Sinatra? It felt a little like getting summoned to the principal’s office, and my first reaction was to wonder if I’d written something Sinatra didn’t appreciate.
This isn’t exactly muckraking journalism, so that thought quickly receded and disappeared completely when I sat down in Sinatra’s office.
“How does that ratings system work in steeplechasing?” he asked. “I’d like to consider doing something like that here, but I need to know more about it.”
So I explained the basics. Three handicappers – I’m one – assign a rating number to each active horse on the circuit, and we average those numbers to get an official rating. Then racing secretary Bill Gallo writes races based on those numbers and groupings of horses. The condition might be, “a handicap hurdle for horses rated 120 and below.” Weights are assigned based on the ratings, so the highest-rated entry carries 158 pounds (scale weight for an older horse) and others slot in underneath based on their numbers where one ratings point equates to one pound. The bottom weight is usually 140.
There are other nuances – maiden winners get automatic ratings for one start, imports use the ratings from their home countries for one start, 4-year-olds and fillies/mares get four pounds off when they run in ratings handicaps. Technically, there is no limit to a horse’s number though the highest-rated horses in the country are in the 160 range. The lowest are right around 100. Right now, 130 is the highest race category – meaning anyone above that is essentially a stakes horse. A horse gets reviewed every time it runs, and can go up or down based on the handicappers’ opinions of the performance. The ratings system is typically only used in ratings handicaps, meaning other races (allowance, stakes, maiden, whatever) follow the published conditions as weight-for-age, allowances/penalties or external handicap.
It’s all patterned after systems used in Ireland, England, France, pretty much every racing country other than the United States. In flat and jump racing, most countries use a handicap system as the backbone of racing. There are stakes, allowance, maiden races and handicaps. American racing leans on the claiming system, and it’s time that changes – something the National Steeplechase Association recognized a few years ago. The move resulted in bigger fields, longer hurdle careers and a subtle (if important) improvement in horse care and public perception. There were never many claims in American jump racing, but they’re basically gone now (the circuit still has maiden claimers).
Of course, trainers gripe about the ratings. Their horses are too high on the list and everybody else’s are too low. Trainers can ask for a review, but we try to filter out the one-sided complaints that can sound like the musings of Little League parents.
I’m not sure how much our conversation had to do with it, but Sinatra delivered a presentation on a ratings system for American flat racing at The Jockey Club’s Round Table Conference this summer. He’d like to see fewer claiming races and feels like such a move would help owners, breeders, trainers, racetracks and ultimately bettors. I agree. The claiming system should be changed.
Think about it. If a system worked, why would it constantly need to be adjusted with other layers of rules?
Claims can be voided for veterinary issues. Allowance races are frequently “optional” claimers, meaning a horse can bypass the non-winners of two (or whatever) condition if entered for a certain claiming price. Some states waive the claiming price for horses coming off a layoff, or those making their debuts for their breeders. Depending on the state, a claimed horse typically must race at a higher level in its next start. There are open claimers, conditioned claimers (non-winners of a race in six months, two in a year, two in a lifetime, at a mile or over since Jan. 1. . .), maiden claimers and so on.
Owners and breeders I talk to would appreciate a move away from claiming. Why invest time and money in a racehorse if it can quickly belong to someone else when you run it in a competitive spot? Imagine breeding a horse, raising it, spending time and money to get to a race and then having all that be for nothing when someone claims your horse. Many of you probably don’t have to imagine.
Critics say claiming levels the playing field, but it does the opposite. A trainer who takes immaculate care of his or her horses gets penalized, known as a “good outfit to claim from.” A trainer who takes risks or gets aggressive scares off potential claims. Ultimately, the horses lose. Ever look at the past performances of a claimer? Some change barns four or five times a year. Is that best for the horse? If you want to sell your horse, enter it in a sale, not a race.
People get the wrong impression that a ratings system sounds elitist, that lower-level horses would be phased out of the game. That’s not the idea. A ratings system creates competitive opportunities for all horses at all levels, without putting them at risk of claims.
My advice for Sinatra and anyone else contemplating this? Dive in, with caution. Experiment with it. Try writing races based on Equibase or Beyer speed figures(horses who haven’t run above 65 in six months or a year instead of a $20,000 claimer, for example) and see what happens.
Horsemen just might get used to the idea and, if they don’t, they know where Sinatra’s office is.