The Inside Track with David Milch: Claiming Race

HBO: For someone who doesn't understand horse racing, the question remains: Why would someone ever put their horse in a claiming race?

DAVID MILCH: Most races are claiming races. For the lower caliber horses, it's a way the track has of forcing people to run their horses at approximately the price at which they would not mind having the horse bought. If you have a horse that can beat horses worth $20,000, typically you enter it in a $20,000 claiming race. Now there might be people who feel their horse is worth $20,000 and they say: I wouldn't mind seeing the horse get beat. So they'll enter it for $40,000 so the horse looks like it's performed badly. Or what they might do is say: I'm going to risk people claiming the horse and run it in a $10,000 claiming race and that means he'll be running the horse against horses that are less talented, so his horse is much more likely to win. The downside is he's more likely to have the horse claimed -- someone's liable to step in and buy the horse for the $10,000.

HBO: So are horses claimed regularly?

DAVID MILCH: Oh yeah. There are very few claiming races that at least one horse isn't claimed.

HBO: So that explains why Goose says to Renzo: "Horse ownerships tend to be fluid, that's why pencils have erasers."

DAVID MILCH: Absolutely.

HBO: Is Renzo naïve to try to claim Mon Gateau after one win?

DAVID MILCH: So the most important thing when you claim a horse is a term called "recency." That means a horse has performed well in its immediate past. A horse that did well a year ago, or two years ago (which is the situation with Mon Gateau going into his first race in episode 1) has no recency at all and there is no reason to think, given his workouts, that he is prepared to run a good race. That's why Jerry's bet is so inspired. But once the horse establishes his excellence he becomes a more likely candidate for a claim.

HBO: Why, then, does Escalante drop Mon Gateau down to a lower claiming race when he has just won? Isn't that really tempting people to claim the horse?

DAVID MILCH: Running the horse for less money the second time around is exactly the opposite of what you would do with a horse that looks like he is worth the money. He is daring people. It's like a bluff in poker.

HBO: So he is suggesting there must be something wrong with the horse.

DAVID MILCH: Exactly. Or else why would he be running a horse that has just won a race for less than he had before?

HBO: Is that why Escalante seems to be viewed as somewhat disreputable?

DAVID MILCH: He's a very aggressive, heady, smart tactician. But there's nothing illegal about what he's doing. When someone is good at what he does but is a nonconformist, there is a temptation in horse racing, like in all kinds of other areas of human endeavor, to dismiss him for his nonconformity rather than to recognize him for his excellence. And Escalante is a nonconformist. Among other things, he's Peruvian, not American. So the temptation among whites who are not as accomplished at what they do is to dismiss him as disreputable or crooked, when in fact he is cagey and very, very smart. But he encourages people to think of him that way because it gives him an edge.

HBO: When you say an "edge," you mean there's more to horse racing than just having the fastest horse.

DAVID MILCH: There are many tactics: In placing the horse, whom you run the horse against, running the horse when he's ready, when he's absolutely ready. A lot of times what Escalante might do, for example, is run a horse before he's absolutely ready to win and let the horse accumulate two or three performances where he doesn't run well and then all of a sudden strike with the horse. No one is betting the horse and it's at that point that Escalante will run the horse exactly where he belongs or maybe even lower than where he belongs because he's been letting the horse get beat so many times and now he's got a big advantage because he's running against horses of inferior ability.

HBO: When does the horse owner make money?


HBO: Spoken like a true horse owner.

DAVID MILCH: If you can trust your trainer, then you know when to bet the horse. For example if Escalante were to say about a horse he is training: "Even though it looks like his workouts were slow, you can bet this horse today..." that would be a great time for an owner to strike.

HBO: So is that how owners make money in addition to the purses on any wins?

DAVID MILCH: Yes but there are so many crosses and double crosses and triple crosses, you have to really know whether you can really trust your trainer and what he's saying to you. It's a very, very complicated game.


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