07/14/2004 11:00PM

Can't go wrong with Lake in Claiming Crown

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Across the country, poker is rising in popularity - even on television, where it can be as exciting to watch as a mind-numbing world's strongest man competition.

Horse racing's version of high-stakes poker - the claiming game, and more specifically the Claiming Crown - also seems to be catching on. Sixty-two horses were entered in the six Claiming Crown races Saturday at Canterbury Park, an average of a little more than 10 starters per race.

Beyond the quantity of starters, the races offer top-to-bottom depth and quality. Listed below are my thoughts on the Claiming Crown stakes, which are limited to horses that have run for claiming tags of $5,000 to $25,000 over the past year.

These stakes and the five other races on the Canterbury card are part of the Claiming Crown Handicapping Challenge, a free online contest at the Canterbury or NTRA websites, in which players make mythical win and place bets in an attempt to earn one of three berths in the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas in January 2005.

* Race 4, Iron Horse: This 1 1/16-mile race is a competitive contest led by Rough Draft, who has not lost in six starts in starter $5,000 company this year. He is no standout on Beyer Speed Figures, and rates only a narrow edge over Tanqueray, a recent claim by trainer Scott Lake, and Strike Reality, my value contender. Strike Reality is trained by Stanley Roberts, who has two seconds and a third with four starters in the Claiming Crown - mostly with longshots.

* Race 5, Express: A couple of months ago, trainer Pat Byrne and I discussed a horse he had claimed, Cherokee Prospect, who seemed to fit the conditions of this race perfectly. No doubt, other trainers must have felt similarly about some of their horses.

As good as Cherokee Prospect looks for a horse that once raced for a $7,500 tag, Devil's Con and Halo Hunter look even better. Devil's Con is particularly classy, having run competitively in three-other-than allowances at Delaware Park this summer.

* Race 6, Glass Slipper: I found this race, the lone Claiming Crown race restricted to fillies and mares, one of the most competitive. I settled on Sweep in Philly, a winner of four of her last five starts.

I also felt some love for Banished Lover and I Love Lisa, rating them as my second and third choices. Banished Lover was recently second in a stakes race at Mountaineer, but has more experience routing than sprinting the 6 1/2 furlongs of the Glass Slipper.

* Race 7, Rapid Transit: Top to bottom, this race is arguably the best on the card. With a recent fifth-place finish at Belmont clouding his form, Sure You Can is my choice at what should be a square price. He is trained by Lake, who easily is the leading trainer in Claiming Crown history, with six wins in 19 starts.

Satan's Code, another Lake starter, is my second choice after winning a Virginia-bred stakes race in track-record time at Colonial. He raced six furlongs in 1:08.48, earning a 95 Beyer Speed Figure. Kentucky invader Quote Me Later, who won the $35,000 St. Paul Stakes over the Canterbury surface last year, also figures prominently.

* Race 8, Emerald: Stage Player has never won at as far as 1 1/16 miles, but he has never been this good, either. Since joining trainer Jeff Mullins this spring and being returned to turf, he has won three of four starts. His one loss over that stretch was one of his best races, a close runner-up finish behind three-time graded stakes winner Boston Common.

If he falters going 1 1/16 miles, anything could happen in this 14-horse field.

* Race 9, Jewel: This race runs through Lake, who has three starters in the day's marquee event, a $150,000 stakes at 1 1/8 miles. I will play Polish Times, in part on the angle that he is now owned in part by Richard Englander, who is kind of like the Warren Buffet of the low- to mid-end horse market.

If Englander - a two-time Eclipse Award-winning owner and three-time Claiming Crown winner - is privately buying into Polish Times heading into this race, so too will I, at least at the windows. The horse also has quality form and Beyer Figures, and won his only previous start at 1 1/8 miles.