It's no secret the popularity and draw of Standardbred racing has not seen an increase for quite some time. Often times a conversation about Standardbred racing is automatically redirected towards the various topics of how it does not involve the Kentucky Derby, how the drivers are not called jockeys, and what exactly it is they are sitting on behind the horses.
In the general public eye, the existence of Standardbred racing is close to non-existent. However, there are steps that can be taken, measures to look at, and possible changes to consider in order to alter this problem. As I have looked around the sport, seen certain aspects of it, and have talked to different trainers, drivers, and owners, it became evident that a change in claiming races could possibly be a catalyst towards a positive change.
I recognize claiming races have done a lot of good for harness racing. For example, they get new owners into the sport relatively easy, and without great risk, as most of the horses that are up for claims are proven racehorses. They allow trainers to increase their stable relatively easy which obviously brings more income into their pockets as they have more horses racing.
Claimers can make it easier for inside gamblers to handicap a race as often times a drop in class can mean a horse is faster than the competition. Along those same lines, if a gambler is familiar with the "game" of claiming races, as in having the appropriate knowledge in regards to who the trainers are, what techniques they use, and if they want to indeed win the race they have been put into or not, then this also allows for a much easier betting landscape.
It also makes the job of the Racing Secretary a bit easier as they are more accurately able to tell which horse fits into what race. These are definite positives for claiming races, and I am also sure there are plenty more, but what these positives all have in common is they are not meant for the casual fan; which, I keep hearing, is what harness racing is severely lacking.
One of the prime reasons public interest has waned over the years is mainly because of the seeming complexities of betting. A first timer at the track does not know how to properly read a program, let alone know the inside information needed in order to successfully bet a claiming race. Bill Peterson wrote a good article on claiming races entitled, "A Good Horse Racing Angle for Claiming Races and Trainer Moves." In it he describes the process of betting on one of these races. He states,
“Now comes the tricky part of this angle, however, and that is, will this be the race that they hold the horse back in precisely because everyone expects it to win? If you're fortunate enough to have inside information straight from the trainer's stable, you will know if they are sending the horse for the win. If not, you may want to notice the betting patterns and try to figure out if they are backing their own horse.”
“Sometimes the best course of action is to sit out the first race when the trainer has reclaimed his horse. If the horse loses, which it may, then the odds will be higher next time out and that may be the trainer's intention. If it wins, then you may want to sit out the next race as well because it will surely go off at short odds and that would be a time to hold that horse back. As I said before, handicapping claiming races involves as much psychology as horse sense. [Author’s emphasis]”
His article is adamantly pro-claiming races as he tries to explain the intricate system he uses in order to successfully handicap these races. However, it is very easy to see how new fans simply cannot be drawn into the sport without the proper tenacity and passion for harness racing. The system has become over complicated and muddled. But the problems infesting claiming races do not stop there.
Outside of the betting realm, the majority of trainers and owners view claiming races as a "game" as well. This mentality often leads to negligent and even dreadful treatment of the horses. Less ethical members of the racing community view the horse not as an animal, but as a "rent-a-horse" property where winning that weeks purse is more important than the health of the animal.
This is where the dreaded "chemists" make their entrance, drug up the horse for this one race, create a false record for that particular animal, with the means of having the horse claimed under false pretenses, while they collect the purse and the claiming money. The horse, and every medical problem covered up by the drugs essentially becomes the new trainer's problem. The value of the horse's health has been in effect replaced by the value of their claiming price and the purse money.
On the other side of this coin, trainers often try to hide the health of their horse in order to discourage it from getting claimed as well, which again, affects the betting population and, the casual fan. And often times, the big stables and their trainers/owners will tend to drop a horse well below their own abilities simply because they care more about their win statistics than about losing the horse; which, in turn, makes it more difficult for small time owners as they try to compete against stables consisting of horses in the range of one hundred head. Claiming races, as they exist now, have become sources of manipulation by the horse racing community and confusion for new fans.
Essentially what I am saying is that the system is flawed. And I will be the first to tell anyone, I do not have all the answers. I am only proposing to take another look at the system and try to fix the big flaws. Many people are adverse to change. And a change in claiming races, I'm sure, will be met with many appeals; the loudest appeal of course being: Thoroughbred racing consists of almost all claiming races. And that is true.
Most Thoroughbred races are claiming races. However, what does Thoroughbred racing have that Standardbred racing does not? They have a diverse and growing audience, the Triple Crown, and national TV coverage on NBC and ESPN. These big three advantages in favor of jockey racing allow it to continue down the path it has always taken. Standardbred racing has to consider possible changes in all aspects of the sport in order to turn it around despite protests from the majority.
What is it that everyone craves in their lives, consciously or unconsciously, besides wealth of course? The answer: Simplicity. Simplicity is now, forever has been, and forever will be the key to success in any facet of one's life. The moment things become unnecessarily complicated, the quicker people are to drop whatever it is outright and walk away. If we can simplify the sport, through any means necessary, and this obviously includes amending claiming races in their present state, then positive results will apply.
Ultimately, this is not solely up to me, and with this article my intentions are to open up a dialogue on a subject that some feel needs to be looked at. So, what does the racing community think?
Daniel J. Kazmaier is the son of trainer/driver Dan Kazmaier, a noted east coast horseman and current Presiding Judge in Delaware. DJ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.