The claiming system, in conjunction with the liberal use of drugs, is a critical issue for the horse generally in racing in the United States. The system encourages a short term view by horsemen, and because the drug history does not travel with the horse, each new ownership does not have a complete record of how the horse has been treated; in addition there is a negative incentive for the prior owner to pass along this information.
There is a direct connection from the best tracks to the lowest tracks to the auctions and kill buyers to the slaughter house. Not only does the claiming system move horses around (mostly down), but horse traders do the same thing. Most of this activity occurs at the end of race meets where moving horses to new locations adds costs to the horsemen. So a horse could be sold, at the end of a Churchill meet, for example, to a trader buying horses for Charles Town or Mountaineer Park.
The current system works for the horsemen as long as there is someone willing to take the horse (claimed or sold) after a period of time. This is fine when a horse is running for 50k, then 40k and so forth. It gets tough when the horse hits the bottom. The last trainer is caught with the horse, and oftentimes will be under pressure from the racing secretary to either run the horse, or get rid of it, or lose the stall.
Programs like CANTER are great, they serve as an advertising medium, but less often do they become the place of last resort (i.e. they will rarely just take a horse when a horseman has to move one out.) The same with many of the rescues that work directly with the tracks. They are great, but the reality is, they either fill up quickly, or become very selective in terms of which horses they take, preferably ones that they can more easily rehab and move on.
That’s where the “horse trader” comes in. He/she will buy anything, $200, no questions (no need for a sound horse in this case, they are going to kill for the most part, although some traders might have some connections with private buyers to move the good ones on, or perhaps even sell them on to the bush track circuit etc.).
Most horsemen on the backside will know who the horse trader is. They might not like it, and don’t ask questions, but they might not have any choice. The advantage the trader has, over a rescue, he can take an unlimited number of horses. Thoroughbreds make good horse meat (drugs aside of course.)
Some tracks have responded to this issue with a “no slaughter” policy. While excellent on the surface, there is a potential for unintended consequences. Prior to a “no slaughter” policy, the horse trader might have just shipped the horses to the local auction, some might have then been picked up privately, or by a rescue. Now many go directly to a kill buyer, and that guy won’t let rescues see them because they don’t want to get the horse trader in trouble; the horse trader is his business partner. Similarly the horse trader cannot afford to get the horse’s connections in trouble. It’s all now hush hush.
How can we compete with the horse trader, kill buyer relationship? We need to design a system where a horseman can get the equivalent that he / she would get from the horse trader, at the time the horseman needs to move on her horse.
Of course there are plenty of horsemen who will do the right thing by their horses, always, but we have to be realistic about the system we have designed.