Sun | Nov 17, 2019

Ainsley Walters | Caymanas running lame

Published:Sunday | October 13, 2019 | 5:46 AM
REASSURANCE (centre), with Rayon Lewis aboard, wins the sixth race ahead of CUE THREE (right, Samantha Fletcher) at Caymanas Park. The system of horse racing in Jamaica is decimating the sport, argues Ainsley Walters.

JAMAICA’S HORSE-RACING industry, despite the best face being put on by two-year-old promoting company, Supreme Ventures Racing and Entertainment Limited (SVREL), is at an all-time low, crippled by a parasitic system of ‘categorising’ horses for racing and betting purposes, that, since 1993, continues to negatively affect every sector and professional group associated with local racing.

After more than two decades’ worth of warning by breeders, owners and some trainers, most of whom have since given up and fled racing, the parasite remains, the adoption of North America’s system of claiming and condition racing gnawing away at an industry now on life support.

Started in 1993, the system of claiming races and its conjoined twin, condition races, sparked a flight of capital, owners and breeders, in addition to professionals – jockeys, trainers and grooms – leading to a debilitated racing product, which continues to turn off seasoned punters and confuses the hell out of potential new bettors. It has become a mumbo-jumbo of possibly 20-odd categories of horses, moving from a simple ABC system of classes A to F.

To fathom how and why the system of claiming and condition racing has wrecked Jamaica’s horse-racing industry, one has to first understand the difference between the two systems and the respective jurisdictions in which they operate, hence the suitability of either to an island which has one racetrack and possibly 800-900 horses competing.

Handicapping and rating is successfully and profitably practised in every major racing jurisdiction in the world, apart from North America, where the survival of the entire horse-racing industry is dependent on subsidies from casinos to pay purses at its racetracks, not revenue from money wagered by punters, as is the norm elsewhere with handicapping and rating.

In North America, which backers of claiming and condition racing like to refer to as ‘the whole world’, racing would have been shuttered long ago and thousands of jobs lost were it not for subsidies from slot machines.

To explain handicapping and rating, a system that originated in Great Britain from as far back as one can possibly go in the history of horse racing, let’s use that country’s football divisions as an example, which should make it very easy for a non-racing person to understand.

Under handicapping and rating in Jamaica, horses competed in classes (rating groups), A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, C, D, E and F. Just think of the English football hierarchy system of Premiership (A1), Championship (A2), League One (A3), League Two (B1) and the National League (B2), etc, and how teams either earn promotion, or suffer demotion, based on points from performances.

Similar to how football teams compete in divisions, in which they rise or fall in the points standings after each match, some being promoted, or demoted, based on points accumulated at the end of a season, a horse-racing system of handicapping and rating adjusts each horse’s ‘points standings’ (weight carried) after each race is run.

‘NO PROMOTION OR DEMOTION’

Using finishing positions (first, second, third, fourth, etc) and proximity of runners to each other (lengths) at the end of each race, among other expert variables, handicappers allot either more or fewer ‘points’ (weight to be carried) per horse for its next race in order to level the playing field, giving each a new rating number, which corresponds to their performance or lack thereof.

Similar to football, horses can either be promoted or demoted, to another ‘division’ (class) if, after ‘points’ (weight) adjustment, they rise above, or fall below, the rating for the particular ‘division’ (class) in which they had competed.

The handicapper can also decide not to give an improved or reduced weight because within him exists the all-important element of the human factor, which, unlike races run under ‘conditions’ (predetermined weight allotments), can immediately take into account nuances such as suitability to distance, quality of opponents, and other expert intricacies.

In essence, the handicapper’s job is to adjust, or not, the weight of each horse after each race to create an imaginary dead heat of all the horses in a particular race, making horse racing a wagering sport based on punters’ ability to predict how well horses will perform under weight, making weight carried over particular distances the single most important factor in determining a horse’s true class, be it in a sprint, middle or long-distance race.

Therefore, punters place bets against, or in support of, the ability of horses to carry published weights – inclusive of jockey’s body weight, their equipment and implements made from lead and placed in the saddle bag, to make up for any shortfall.

Then came the Americans and Canadians with condition racing in which weight to be carried by horses are predetermined by number of races won in age groups, most times at level weight, or near level, totally disregarding quality shown in winning previous races.

Condition racing is accompanied by its ugly conjoined twin, claiming, in which owners are effectively forced to put their horses up for sale in races categorised by a dollar figure in an attempt to peg quality to dollar.

This came about because the North Americans, not having a reliable and advanced handicapping and rating system as the British, settled on ‘categorising’ horses, instead of classifying their respective abilities based on weight carried in races.

CLAIM TAGS

Straight up, a claiming race is one in which horses are entered to compete on ‘claim tags’ (an advertised price), meaning from the moment the horse arrives and is identified in the paddock at the racetrack, the area where they wait before entering the saddling barn, a raffle is held in front of the stewards of the race meet.

The winning claimant, a licensed trainer, acting on behalf of a registered owner, who would have deposited the relevant sum, takes ownership after the race is completed, whether the horse wins, places, finishes down the track, fails to finish or dies on the racetrack, as they sometimes do at Caymanas Park.

What the 1993 implementation of claiming and conditions, replacing rating and handicapping, actually caused was a flight in significant numbers of owners, who could afford to purchase horses at the annual yearling sale, or directly from stud farms, effectively causing most breeders, the base of the industry, to eventually go out of business, or cut back drastically on new bloodstock.

Aghast at the thought of having to put their horses, especially three-year-olds, up for sale in a claiming race, now for as low as $120,000, in order to earn purse money, after paying an average of $1.5m for a yearling in November, to spend another $1.5m, or more, in order to prepare for racing as a three-year-old, two years later, owners who could afford to purchase young horses bolted from the sport, sharply following on the heels of breeders.

Supplanted by the supposed ‘quick fix’ of buying a ‘used horse’ at Caymanas Park on any given raceday, under the name of ‘claiming races’, aided and abetted by successive promoting companies since 1993, the breeding industry buckled, subsequently producing no more than one or two good local-bred horses per year since because their customer base had fled.

See Part 2 on Monday.

- Ainsley Walters, better known as ‘Jimmie’, is a veteran horse racing journalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ainsley.walters@gleanerjm.com.