Trainers capitalizing on Under 20's Claiming Challenge
by Bob Ehalt
Under 20's Program to return December 7
For eight trainers with small stables of 20 or fewer horses, participating in claiming races at the Belmont Park spring/summer meet proved to be doubly rewarding.
Besides collecting purse revenue from their horses' starts, the eight horsemen divided $80,000 in prize money as the top finishers in the New York Racing Association's first Under 20's Claiming Challenge.
Trainer Ed Barker earned $18,000 for winning the new contest, which will be offered again at the Aqueduct winter meet. Barker's roster of horses accumulated 41 points in claiming races at the Belmont meet, based on points derived from top five finishes in claiming races for winners.
Robert Falcone Jr. was second with 28 points and received a $15,000 bonus and Jim Ryerson was awarded $13,000 for finishing third with 27 points.
The other five trainers in the top eight were James Ferraro ($11,000, 25 points), Patrick Quick ($9,000, 24), Randi Persaud ($7,000, 23.5), Oscar Barrera III ($4,000, 23) and Mertkan Kantarmaci ($3,000, 22).
"It was a great, innovative program, particularly for the smaller trainers at NYRA like myself who need help making ends meet," Barker said. "I think the contest created a nice level of competition among the trainers for the prize money and it helped fill the entry box with some extra starters. It was a win-win for us and NYRA."
NYRA's Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Martin Panza said he was pleased with the feedback he received from horsemen and expressed delight that the contest achieved its goal of helping to ease the financial burden of New York-based trainers with small stables. It also increased entries in claiming races that were vital to filling each day's card during the Belmont meet.
"For doing it the first time, we were pleased with the results," Panza said. "The contest was designed to help the small trainers and the trainers who run their horses frequently. It's a difficult environment for them and this is a way to help keep them in business. It also rewards them and recognizes them for running their horses here with us. Ed Barker is a trainer who runs his horses and if you're an owner you need trainers like that because you can't make any money keeping your horses in the barn."
Launched in April, the Under 20's Claiming Challenge was open to trainers with 20 or fewer horses. Those trainers were required to submit a list of horses who would be eligible to accrue points in the contest. Only claimed horses could be deleted or added to that list.
Points were awarded on those horses' performances at the Belmont meet in claiming races or when they ran in an optional claimer with a claiming tag. In dirt races, a win was worth six points, with second netting five points, a third four points, fourth three points and fifth two points. In turf races, the top five spots were worth 5-4-3-2-1 in descending order.
To illustrate the value of the $18,000 prize to Barker - since a trainer generally receives 10 percent of the winner's share of the purse - it was the financial equivalent of winning a race worth roughly $330,000.
"Honestly, for guys with less than 20 horses in New York, you don't get the best of horses and it's difficult to compete with the large stables, and I absolutely believe more trainers started horses in claiming races because of it," Barker said.
Falcone said he started slowly in the contest but entered more horses in claiming races toward the end of the meet to move up in the standings.
"Lower-end trainers don't get much recognition or rewards, so it was great that NYRA established this contest to help showcase what we do," Falcone said.
For Ryerson, the trainer's bonus of $13,000 for third place was a welcomed boost to his stable's bottom line.
"For me it was a godsend and I really appreciate it. Any help we can get to defray our costs is a very good thing," Ryerson said. "I think Martin and his crew have come up with some innovative things to help the little guy. They understand the financial problems we face, which are very real, and this program also encouraged people to claim horses and run them."
Joseph Appelbaum, President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, says the contest showed promise in its first year.
"It was a pilot program and it generated action for the trainers who became involved in it," Appelbaum said. "There's a scarcity of horses and you need to try programs like this to find out which ones work and which ones won't. This one seemed to work."
Based on the success of the initial contest and a positive response from horsemen, Panza said the Under 20's Claiming Challenge will be brought back in the winter from December 7, 2018 through March 31, 2019 at Aqueduct.
Combined with the return of the "Per Start Credit" program that gives trainers a $300 credit toward workman's compensation costs for any finish fourth or worse, as well as purse payoffs to owners of at least $300 for sixth-place finishes or worse and NYRA's Starter Loyalty Program, Panza said horsemen will have added incentive to support winter racing in New York.
"There's going to be a lot of reasons to come to Aqueduct this winter," Panza said. "It should make for an interesting meet, and a small trainer with some claiming horses should give serious thoughts to racing in New York. It will be a rewarding winter for guys who run their horses instead of keeping them in the barn."