12/17/2004 12:00AM

Barns playing claim game


NEW ORLEANS - The claim game is alive and well at Fair Grounds, where 46 horses have changed barns in the first 13 days of the meet for a collective tag of $794,500. Gamaliel Vazquez, who trains for the nation's leading owner, Michael Gill, had claimed 14 horses as of Thursday at the Fair Grounds meet, forking over $351,000 for a collection of horses ranging from the cheapest level, the $5,000 gelding Wings of Jones, to optional allowance-level players Chilling Effect, Bay Marvel, and Distinct Vision, each claimed for $40,000.

Vazquez is likely to enter some of these horses over the final days of the year as his owner, Michael Gill, chases the all-time owners' record of 494 victories in a year. As of Friday afternoon, Gill had won 467 races in 2004.

"I'm going to run them right back," said Vazquez after saddling Saucy Cat to finish third in the fourth race at Fair Grounds on Friday. "We're aware of the record and we want to help him win it. He deserves it. He works hard, he's good, and he's invested a lot of money. If he gets within 20 or so we'll find a way. We want to run. If we can't find the right spot, we'll try to find a spot."

Horses claimed at Fair Grounds have to run for higher purses off the claim or wait 30 days to run at the same level.

"If I've got to step them up 25 percent to run, I'll do that," said Vazquez. "Otherwise, I'll wait the 30 days and run them back at the same level."

Gill and Vazquez consult on possible claims daily.

"He reads the [Daily] Racing Form and handicaps the races the day before," said Vazquez. "Then we talk and he tells me which horses he wants to claim. Sometimes he gives me a choice of several horses to choose from. I look at them when they come out and decide whether or not to put in a claim."

Over at the racing secretary's office, Tiffany Lovelace is the keeper of the claims. She guards the small metal box at the far end of the front counter where the claim slips are filed up until 15 minutes before post time. If more than one claim comes in for a horse, Lovelace conducts a shake, using the same pills used to draw post positions for the races, to determine who gets the horse.

"I write a number on the back of each claim slip and whatever number comes up in the shake wins the claim," she said. "Then we check to see they have the money to cover the claim and to make sure they have the proper license to make the claim."

On Friday afternoon Lovelace conducted the biggest shake of the meet, a five-way bid for Victory Wanted, who won the fourth race on the card. Trainer Steve Asmussen won the shake. Vazquez was one of the losing bidders.

"He looked like he could have been a good horse," said Vazquez. "But that's okay, I've won some shakes, too."

Lovelace said the number of claims was "about normal," noting that "it gets really busy toward the end of the meet."

* Trainer Albert Stall broke out of a 0-for-21 slump Friday at Fair Grounds with an impressive debut by 2-year-old filly Peski Bride, who ran away from a field of $15,000 maiden claimers in the first race on the card.