by Frank Vespe

Characterizing it as a “step in our efforts to improve the health and safety of horses and humans,” the Maryland Racing Commission today gave conditional approval to a rule that would void claims in certain circumstances.

The decision, unanimous but conditioned on further study by the commissioners and on the agreement of the racetracks, would make Maryland’s claiming rules in this area mirror those in place in New York.  Those rules provide that:

  • Claims are void if a horse dies during a race or is euthanized on the track following a race; and
  • Claims are voidable, at the discretion of the successful claimant, for a period of one hour after a race goes official if the claimed horse is vanned off the track.

The Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association voted unanimously at its July 12 meeting to advocate for the rules.  That meant that the groups with the biggest stake in the claiming rules — the tracks and the horsemen, as well as the Commission — are generally in accord on the concept of a rule that would void claims in limited circumstances to protect horses.  “I like the idea,” noted Commissioner David Hayden, “and am really happy and excited that something’s being done.”

But the timing of events left the Commission in a bit of a bind.  Neither representatives of the racetracks nor some of the Commissioners had had a chance to review the proposed rules.  Yet with a requirement that any rules it adopts be voted on at a public meeting — and no public meeting scheduled until mid-September — the Commission needed to act today, in some fashion, or allow the Timonium meet to occur under the old rules.

Thus, the Commission voted to move forward on the condition that the racetracks agree and that a fuller review by Commissioners does not bring any issues to light.

The Commission’s focus on safety has been spurred in large measure by the spate of breakdowns that occurred at Laurel Park in the winter.  That led the Commission to revitalize its safety committee and take additional steps it believed would improve health and safety.  These include enhancing pre-race veterinary examinations, with an eye towards preventing unsound horses from racing, and requiring that claimed horses not race for less than 125 percent of their claimed value for a period of 30 days following the claim.

Commission sources previously had said that there were two catastrophic breakdowns during the Pimlico meet.

The impetus behind this rule change is to remove, or reduce, the incentive unscrupulous trainers might feel to run unsound horses with the idea of losing them via the claimbox.  “We’re trying to do as much as we can to prevent the exploitation of the horse,” explained Commissioner Tom Winebrener.

A similar rule in New York seems to have generated mostly positive reviews, and fatalities at Aqueduct were reportedly down significantly this year versus last — although no one can say with any reliability to what extent, if any, the decline resulted from rules changes as opposed to other factors.  On the other hand, a more far-reaching rule in California has generated controversy, in part, said Winebrener, because the rule is too complicated with “too many discretionary decisions.”

Bruce Quade, the Commission’s chairman, pronounced himself satisfied with the step, calling it “a continuation of our efforts,” and said that, on the surface, the proposed rule seems to be the right next step for Maryland to take.

Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas did not take a position on the rule because he had not seen it previously, but he indicated that he would have his racing staff review it and respond to the Commission within a couple of weeks.