08/01/2001 11:00PM

Aside from one standout, these races are wide open


SHAKOPEE, Minn. - Starter-allowance conditions - which govern all six Claiming Crown races - often pose a tricky challenge even to seasoned handicappers.

Because a horse's form can change dramatically over an extended period of time, some handicapping tenets that govern everyday claiming races often do not apply to the looser starter conditions for which horses qualify.

Probably the most difficult variable to gauge is class. Claiming races essentially define a horse's approximate worth, but under starter conditions a particular horse's value may not be as easy to pin down.

Nat Wess, coordinator for the Claiming Crown, is accustomed to being questioned by horsemen about how to judge whether their horses will be competitive in these races. Wess said his rule of thumb is to basically double the starter price. For example, the top contenders in the Glass Slipper, which is for horses who have started for $12,500 or less within the last year, "should be competitive for about $25,000," said Wess.

Wess said his rule varies somewhat along a sliding scale. In particular, horses in this year's Jewel, contested under $25,000 starter conditions, "might be a little bit below" the $50,000 standard. Conversely, horses in the Iron Horse ($5,000) or Express ($7,500) "could be worth triple, even more, the starter price," said Wess. "There's a horse in the $5,000 race [Slew Can Go] who just won for open $25,000."

A Claiming Crown race-by-race analysis:

Iron Horse: Lots of speed and a bulky 14-horse field seemingly would make this two-turn race made to order for a horse who can stalk and save ground. Given the rail slot and his sharp recent win at Delaware, Slew Can Go, one of two starters in here for Scott Lake, could fit that bill. Likewise, Secret Squall is well drawn and can sit the right trip. Watkindadealisthis, brilliant in recent months, must overcome the dreaded 14 hole.

Express: This is the only Crown event with a legitimate standout: The Maccabee, who most likely will attempt to put his rivals away at once. Not only do his last two Beyer Figures (104, 101) tower over the rest, but tactically, his superior early speed should simplify things. Don't expect much more than 3-5. The exotics could be worthwhile if Missy's Whirl can persevere while doing much of the chasing, and Fearless Pirate, a lifetime earner of nearly $500,000, appreciates the move back to dirt.

Glass Slipper: A mare such as Something Classy typifies the apples-and-oranges aspect of the Crown: She invades from Washington, and how is a bettor to match her up with horses from Texas, Illinois, Maryland, and elsewhere? Aside from Beyer comparisons and pure guesswork, here's a notion that her favorable outside post and excellent speed may allow her to shrug off fillies such as Gin N Ginger and Dancing on By. Then she will have to hold off a boatload of stalkers and closers in the 14-horse field, including French Teacher and Lady Di Huntley. This might be the toughest race on the card.

Rapid Transit: Claiming Crown officials went out of their way to point out a Jan. 28 race at Laurel: Sonofaqueen beat Sassy Hound by a neck, and both earned monster figs. Both show up as major pace-stalking factors here after holding form; maybe Sassy Hound can turn the tables in a mild upset. He's drawn to the outside of Sonofaqueen, and that might give jockey Mark Johnston more leverage than Rodrigo Madrigal. Big Gold, who came to hand at Oaklawn this spring, ran powerfully in winning a second-level allowance at Arlington last out and represents a solid stretch threat.

Emerald: Like the Glass Slipper, this shapes up as a handicapping doozy. Horses such as R. Encounter, Ringing Edge, and Cautious figure to show the way, followed by stalkers such as Dignitas Dancer, Clever Actor, Runaway Victor, Metatonia, and Cleat. Dignitas Dancer, having been so impressive recently in Texas, probably will be a clear-cut favorite, but anything lower than 5-2 or so seems an unnecessary risk. Clever Actor, the Bill Mott hand-me-down who won off nicely for $40,000 at Delaware, might offer more value in what is clearly a scramble.

Jewel: Probably the main question to be answered is whether the late-running California sprinter, Sing Because, will move early to challenge Five Straight, the presumed front-runner who otherwise might face little other opposition. Five Straight was good enough this spring to finish respectably in two Lone Star showcases behind Dixie Dot Com, and although his subsequent efforts weren't spectacular, he has been prominent against some fairly tough company. If allowed to go solo, he could get brave. Other logical contenders include the consistent Penn National invader, Barrister; the improved stretch-runner from Kentucky, Banner Salute; and Connecting Terms, who once served as Victory Gallop's designated rabbit.