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Playing the Claim Game

The View

Every once in a while you come across someone who you are genuinely impressed by. Sydney Weaver is one of those people.

For the past five years, Weaver has been very present on the harness racing scene. She was named a “Super Fan” by the I Love Canadian Harness Racing Fan Club, won the United States Trotting Association’s Marie Hill Youth Writing Contest, and is an outspoken advocate and fundraiser for children with disabilities.

At 13 years of age, Weaver, who has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, is an eloquent public speaker with a smile and a dream – to own horses and become a trainer of standardbred horses. At a time when we sadly have more horsepeople leaving our sport than coming in, someone like Sydney is a true bright light.

In 2012, part of that dream came true for the Acton, ON resident when horse owner Cesar Kowalski claimed a pacer named Sydney Seelster and surprised Sydney with the horse before Christmas. Weaver was the proud co-owner of the brown mare - something she took very seriously.

In a televised piece on Woodbine’s 2013 North America Cup broadcast, a passionate Weaver said, “People have said she’s a six thousand claimer, but she’s not. She’s a million dollar horse. She’s a racehorse and she’s mine.”

Of course, in harness racing, horse ownership is often a rough road. On February 9, after winning four of her previous five starts, Sydney Seelster was claimed from a $5,000 claiming event at Flamboro Downs.

In this case, Guy Gagnon who claimed Sydney Seelster, also became the hero of the story. Gagnon, a longtime horseman and family man, when made aware of Sydney’s story, quickly put the horse back in to be claimed and helped facilitate a quick reunion to get Sydney the horse, back into the arms of Sydney the person.

Despite a couple days of social media outrage, the biggest problem with what happened is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with what happened. A horse is entered into a claiming race because there is nowhere else competitive for her to race, and she is claimed. This happens every single day in harness racing. Under the claiming system, it is absolutely crucial that horses are not, for any reason, protected. This is what keeps the races competitive, and ensures that horses compete at the appropriate level.

The Sydney Seelster story has prompted several participants and former participants to share stories of when they lost horses they loved through the claiming box. They cried too. Many of them are still saddened to this day by the memories.

It leaves me to wonder if we need to re-evaluate the claiming system. With the ability to buy and sell horses online that didn’t exist years ago, a new vibrant market exists for acquiring horses.

Last year, the Meadowlands switched many of their condition races to classification races – meaning that the racing secretary assigns horses to races based on performance. The results of this change have paid off with good racing and full fields catering to the fan, horseplayer and owners.

Sydney Weaver is right. Her horse is not a $6,000 claimer. She is a friend, an athlete, a performer and the most central resource in the business of harness racing. The horse makes people fall in love with the sport and we will survive and thrive as an industry because of the horse.

Altering the way races are carded could be a victory for many reasons. And maybe, if we’re really lucky, we’ll find a few more Sydneys out there as well.

Darryl Kaplan
[email protected]


March 10, 2014 - 3:17 pmI couldn't disagree more with

chris bush SAID...

I couldn't disagree more with most of the comments. The claiming system has served racing very well in classifying certain types of horses. Changing it for emotional reasons is ridiculous. Do we really want to hold conditions races for 7 or 8 yr old low end horses? It's flat out unappealing plus you can foresee the possibility of cheating to remain in that class. With claimers you're forced to give it your all every time out. Also claimers should motivate you to move on to possibly bigger and better-its good for business. Closing borders only enhances the chances of creating an inferior product. What would the NHL look like if you had to have teams built on players available from that state or province-a mess. If I'm not mistaken somebeachsomewhere is Ontario bred. What's with our inferiority complex to suggest that Ontario can't produce world class horses to compete with anybody. I believe Bee a magician took away boatloads of money from the U S as did SBSW. Most methods of protectionism in any industry produces disastrous results. Weg is the NHL of Ontario where the best compete against the best and therefore by no surprise produce the best handles.

March 10, 2014 - 7:46 amIf I've said it once, I've

murray brown SAID...

If I've said it once, I've said it more than a hundred times. The claiming system is an abomination to our sport. The problems with it are numerous. The positives, if any, are minuscule. A good, hard working racing secretary(emphasis on the GOOD and HARD WORKING) can put together good race cards without claimers. I'm probably one of the few who remembers racing before claiming races were introduced. We did fine without them before. We would hardly skip a beat if they were abolished.

March 9, 2014 - 10:41 pmI agree that there was

I agree that there was absolutely nothing wrong by the way Guy Gagnon claimed this horse. However, I do understand Sydney Weaver's attachment to her horse.

As a new co-owner of a brilliant racehorse named Kashs Caviar, my trainer named Craig Yates strongly said to me, " Don't fall in love with this horse!"

It's a tough business.

The method of claiming a horse is questionable. Just recently,after driving two hours to Flamboro Downs,in the late afternoon, I dished out $5,000.00, filled out the paperwork, and claimed another horse. It was a done deal.

It wasn't until the end of the night that I found out someone else walked away with the horse. Does a Judge pick straws to determine who is entitled to this horse? This is new to me! Like buying a vehicle, I assumed that whoever puts down the money first, is the new owner...

March 9, 2014 - 5:06 pmA lot of times when horses

Allan Schott SAID...

A lot of times when horses get older they can't compete with the younger horses (granted, not always the case). Why not have classes written for 7 year old and up? Competitive horses can continue to go against younger stock if competitive but by having a 'senior circuit', it allows the veterans to race in the senior circuit. Even if you used classified races, you could still have C-2 for 7yo and up.

March 8, 2014 - 8:52 pmOne of the things that I get

Lynne Magee SAID...

One of the things that I get asked from those outside of our industry is "How can you put them in a claimer and risk losing them? I thought you liked your horses." I do and no, I don't like claiming races. If I have to sell a horse, I would much rather have some control over where that horse is going. But then, I'm not guaranteed that it will stay with that new owner or be moved on---likely the latter--so it all ends up being out of my hands anyway. Those of us who deeply care about our horses (and there are many) find it very difficult to be "in the business" of horse racing but business it is. Claimed horses can go through difficult times that can take a toll on their well-being and, ultimately, performance. They don't take to change well and most are plunked back into competition very soon after changing homes, feeds, training schedules, handlers, etc. Very little thought may be given to how these horses may be responding to these changes. It often takes weeks and sometimes months for a horse to "settle in" and be able to continue with "business as usual".

I was very happy to hear that Guy Gagnon was taking steps to get Sidney Seelster back to Sidney Weaver. Kudos to him. I hope that the two Sidneys will continue to train and race together until the mare is retired. Is it fair that everyone knows this mare is a "hands off" claimer? Not likely but then again, how many times does a story like this (right from the time Sidney Weaver came on the scene) come along in our industry and provide so much good press at a time when we desperately need a 'good news' story?

March 8, 2014 - 2:31 pmDarryl, let's go further with

Georg Leber SAID...

Darryl, let's go further with this. I like many of your points. We have a new reality in Ontario, in that there are fewer races available to enter. It caused me to rethink everything and stay away from the B tracks because its too hard to get in on a regular basis and the money is pitiful.

The classification system at Meadowlands and other US tracks is starting to develop and helps set prices for horses that are racing and as you mentioned makes more competitive racing.

Almost 2 years ago I attended a meeting with owners, drivers, trainers and the ORC. The ORC made a bold statement about taking some sort of lead in developing conditions but nothing has become of it. The purse structure in my opinion is all over the place. As an example a maiden races for $16,000 at WEG with the condition of NW8000. The next class up is NW 2 or 25k for 17k purse. Why not graduate slowly, have 3 classifications, say NW 8k, NW 15k and NW 25K and spread the purses over 3 classes. Instead of 16k and 17k for 2 classes make 3 races say 10k, 11k and 12k. That adds races to the card and more wagering. Those are good purses and a nice gradual leveling. There are many other examples of this as well. Combine this with my next point regarding allowances.

We also have to protect Ontario horses. The allowances at B tracks are 50% up to 4yrs of age. WEG has a weird system that makes no sense and gives US horses allowances too. WEG is the bulk of our purse money and too much of it is leaving Ontario. We can't compete against a Somebeachsomewhere horse bought for $100k as a yearling. Why not 50% (or another %)right across all tracks for ONT bred? Also lets further protect Breeders by extending the allowance to 25% Ontario horses over the age of 4. This can be applied to condition races and claiming races.

I am not anti-American but at a time when our purse money for harness racing is slashed to one third, we have to go into protect mode until it changes. What I'm saying is not outrageous but nobody in any of our 3 political parties understands what I have just described. There is a huge US influence in our racing and they have tax cuts and writeoffs that we don't have in Ontario-we have to level the playing field.

Georg Leber-ICR Racing

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