07/15/2003 11:00PM

Canterbury a perfect fit for Claiming Crown

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SHAKOPEE, Minn. - The history of the Claiming Crown is inextricably linked with Canterbury Park.

So is its future.

When the Claiming Crown was first run in 1999, officials announced that a 10-year plan would stick to a blueprint for host tracks - the first three runnings at Canterbury, followed by an alternating schedule wherein Canterbury would host the event every other year.

So far, the plan has been followed. Canterbury hosted the Claiming Crown from 1999 to 2001, and after the fourth running was held last year at Philadelphia Park, the event returns to Canterbury this year.

But for at least two reasons, it appears the Claiming Crown could become a permanent fixture at Canterbury. Officials, horsemen, and fans at Canterbury have fully embraced the Claiming Crown by turning it into a celebratory event, one that is easily the focal point of their annual race meet. Perhaps equally noteworthy is that the expressed desires from other racetracks to host the event have been lukewarm at best.

"There has been some conversation about this becoming an annual event at Canterbury, although nothing has been decided," said Claiming Crown coordinator Nat Wess. "There has been some talk about Ellis Park wanting it, but that's been from the horsemen and not necessarily the management. Lone Star Park also has shown some interest, but obviously not for next year."

Lone Star Park will host the 2004 Breeders' Cup.

Scott Lake, easily the leading trainer in Claiming Crown history with six wins, said Canterbury has several advantages as host, including its geographical location and certain other factors.

"I like the fact it's in the middle of the country, because you can get horses from the East and West coasts," Lake said. "Last year in Philly, we didn't have them come from California as much."

Lake said the red-carpet treatment that Canterbury affords visiting horsemen, along with the genuine enthusiasm that fans and management show for the event, are other reasons to hand the Claiming Crown keys permanently to Canterbury.

"The people in this area are happy and pleasant to be around," said Lake, who ships his horses in for the Claiming Crown almost a week before the event. "Plus the track surface here is probably the best I've ever trained over."

The ultimate decision about where the Claiming Crown will be held in future years rests with its primary sponsors, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and the national Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. But Canterbury president Randy Sampson said his track would "dearly love" to host the event in 2004 and beyond.

"We've made our feelings known," Sampson said. "Hopefully there will be something decided within the next few months."

Tice has fond racing memories

One of the most popular figures in the Minneapolis area, Mike Tice, was the featured speaker at the Claiming Crown press breakfast Wednesday. Tice, a massive physical specimen who has been head coach of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings since the final game of the 2001 season, said he has "hundreds of memories about horse racing," having taken a great interest in the sport during his college years at the University of Maryland.

One of Tice's guests this weekend for the Claiming Crown is his longtime friend Bill Klinke, a former jockey who stands 4-foot-3.

"Billy wanted to be a football player," Tice said. "I didn't want to be a jockey, though."

Tice played for the Seattle Seahawks and became good friends with jockey Gary Stevens and owner Mike Pegram when he regularly attended the races at the now defunct Longacres just outside of Seattle.

Going to videotape helps Ness

Trainer Jamie Ness won't have far to travel from his regular job when he saddles Shut Out Time as one of the favorites Saturday in the $50,000 Iron Express. For nearly five years, Ness has worked year-round in the simulcast replay center at Canterbury, where he obviously has paid close attention to his work.

Ness, 28, grew up in South Dakota, where his father, John, had a small string of horses that raced mostly in Nebraska. He earned a college degree but wanted back on the racetrack soon after graduation, so he began working in the simulcast center at Canterbury. During the live meet, his hours are cut back so that he can focus on training a small stable of horses, many of whom he has claimed after watching them on television.

"I sent money to Houston, Golden Gate, and Hawthorne to claim horses last winter," Ness said. "I'd like to think I've got a little advantage because I watch the races so close."