Playing the Option

I love watching Navy play football.  Even in their off years their opponents often struggle at times to defend the triple option.  Similarly, I watch a lot of horseplayers struggle with allowance optional claiming races.

As field sizes have gotten smaller, racing secretaries across the country have had to find a way to open up races to allow for larger field sizes.  The result has been the explosion of allowance optional claiming races over the last decade.  Whereas allowance horses used to have to climb the ladder after breaking their maiden by competing again horses in non-winners of one, two and three races other than maiden, claiming, and starter allowances, the allowance optional claiming races have added a new wrinkle into the mix.

The allowance optional claiming race, also called an optional claiming race, should be approached differently than a traditional allowance race or any type of claiming races.  In an allowance optional claiming race, you will have race conditions that are just like a traditional allowance race, but with the option of having a horse run for a claiming price if they do not meet today’s allowance conditions.

The fact that you may have horses in the race that have already beaten the allowance conditions running against horses that have not is the biggest difference from a traditional claiming race.  For example, you may have a horse that is rising up through the “non-winners of” ranks trying a new level today and facing horses that are running for the prescribed claiming price that have already beaten horses at this level.  In a traditional allowance race, they would be facing only horses that had beaten the same lower level races.

So what should you look for when you handicap these types of races?

Condition Criteria:

  • Horses that have won under today’s conditions or better at a similar distance and over a similar surface.
  • High-priced claiming horses that have won at the previous level (for example, a “non-winners of one other than” race if today is a “non-winners of two other than” race) over a similar distance and footing.
  • Horses that have shown class by finishing in the money (third or better) or running a quality race in a graded or non-graded stakes race.
  • Horses that are advancing through the conditions and have been showing quality races at similar distances over similar surfaces.

On Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016, the fifth race from Penn National was an optional claiming race  for “three year olds and upwards which have never won two races other than maiden, claiming, starter, or Pennsylvania-bred or claiming price of $25,000.” Five of the seven entrants were in for a claiming price and had already won at this level or higher.


Harlington Night has beaten this level twice in his last three races, despite not running for a claiming price in the last two efforts.  He meets condition criterion #1.  Based on class he is a contender, but does appear to be a one-dimensional front runner which hurts his chances here.


Zipped Code is winless in his last ten starts including seven at this level or higher. He shows inexcusable poor form of late.  Non-contender.


Resurrection Bay is another one-dimensional front runner who has not won at this level and is one of the two horses not in for a claiming price.  He did beat the “non-winners of one other than” condition two back and ran strongly in his last effort at this level.  In regards to class, he is making a nice progression, but both the pace and class of others will be his downfall here.  Non-contender.


Now We Are Free is outclassed here.  He is a lower-level claiming horse.  Non-contender.


Winning Shot took 15 tries to break his maiden and five tries to clear the “non-winners of one other than” condition.  His last two efforts at this level were less than inspiring, yet his stalking style may be a benefit late and help him to pass the tiring early speed horses.  Non-contender.


Whatsthequestion has beaten today’s condition in three of his last six races with one of those races being at a higher condition and two other races in a sprint.  He meets condition criterion #1.  His ability to press the pace gives him a pace advantage here.  Contender.


Artie Thriller is the lone three-year-old in this field.  He is also second horse to not be running for a claiming price and is trying his first dirt route.  His lone dirt efforts were sprints and he didn’t show much despite advancing up through the conditions (condition criterion #4).   Non-contender based on not showing any form in a dirt sprint.

In summary, only two horses that meet any of the condition criteria: 1-Harlington Night and 6-Whatsthequestion.  Of these two, 6-Whatsthequestion has a pace advantage and is, therefore, the selection.


As expected, Resurrection Bay and Harlington Night locked up in a speed duel with each other, setting up the race for Whatsthequestion.  Winning Shot used a weak pace to his advantage to help add some value to the trifecta and superfecta.

Understanding the differences in approaches for allowance and allowance optional claiming races will help you to spot the horses that have a class advantage.  Coupling this approach with your normal handicapping will give you an advantage when faced with the growing number of optional types of races.

Ray Wallin
Ray Wallin is a licensed civil engineer and part-time handicapper who has had a presence on the Web since 2000 for various sports and horse racing websites and through his personal blog. Introduced to the sport over the course of a misspent teenage summer at Monmouth Park by his Uncle Dutch, a professional gambler, he quickly fell in love with racing and has been handicapping for over 25 years.

Ray’s background in engineering, along with his meticulous nature and fascination with numbers, parlay into his ability to analyze data; keep records; notice emerging trends; and find new handicapping angles and figures. While specializing in thoroughbred racing, Ray also handicaps harness racing, Quarter Horse racing, baseball, football, hockey, and has been rumored to have calculated the speed and pace ratings on two squirrels running through his backyard.

Ray likes focusing on pace and angle plays while finding the middle ground between the art and science of handicapping. When he is not crunching numbers, Ray enjoys spending time with his family, cheering on his alma mater (Rutgers University), fishing, and playing golf.

Ray’s blog, which focuses on his quest to make it to the NHC Finals while trying to improve his handicapping abilities can be found at Ray can also be found on Twitter (@rayw76) and can be reached via email at

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