07/30/2007 11:00PM

From chronic loser to win machine

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One of the primary goals of the Claiming Crown series is to solicit recognition for the unsung heroes in racing, horses that are overshadowed by the sport's biggest stars.

As a winner of 11 of his last 12 races - and his only loss coming by a nose - Golden Hare epitomizes the type of horse the Claiming Crown has come to define since the series was inaugurated eight years ago. Owned by Scott Blasi, the longtime assistant to trainer Steve Asmussen, Golden Hare is one of 86 horses pre-entered in the ninth annual Claiming Crown, a seven-race series set for Saturday at Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky.

"The Claiming Crown has been our goal the whole year," Blasi said early this week from Saratoga, where the top Asmussen horses currently are stabled. "It's a chance for horses to get some overdue recognition. The money isn't bad, either."

The seven Claiming Crown races are run under starter-allowance conditions and offer a total of $600,000 in purse money. Golden Hare, claimed nearly a year ago at Remington Park in Oklahoma for a mere $3,500, is one of 13 horses pre-entered in the $50,000 Claiming Crown Express at six furlongs. Entries for all Saturday races were to be drawn Wednesday at the track. Both HRTV and TVG will broadcast the races live.

In a powerhouse barn replete with stakes horses, including Preakness winner Curlin, Golden Hare did not travel with the Asmussen first string to Saratoga. His absence, however, is more a matter of logistics and had little to do with how Blasi and Asmussen regard him.

"He's actually kind of the barn pet," said Blasi.

Golden Hare, an 8-year-old Kentucky-bred gelding by Gilded Time, ran the first 29 of his 42 career races for the Dream Walkin Farms of country-music superstar Toby Keith. Starting out with Richard Mandella on the Southern California circuit, he won his career debut at 32-1 at Santa Anita on Feb. 2, 2002. He raced with moderate success thereafter, winning twice more while going unplaced in several stakes, before being sent to trainer Bret Calhoun in the spring of 2003. He went 0 for 5 for Calhoun, who was duly unimpressed.

"I think they were thinking he could be a stakes horse and a stallion prospect, but the truth was he just wasn't that kind of horse," said Calhoun. "He was just an okay horse."

After his last race for Calhoun in August 2004, Golden Hare was sent to trainer Kenny Smith at Louisiana Downs. For Smith, the gelding would go 0 for 12, with his final race in that span coming on Aug. 22, 2006, when he surfaced for a $3,500 tag at Remington following a 14-month layoff. Blasi said he didn't know then - and still does not know - what kept Golden Hare on the sidelines for so long, but that has long been a moot point.

"Physically, he has stayed very sound," said Blasi.

After finishing second on the day he was claimed, Golden Hare won five weeks later when Asmussen and his Remington assistant, Darren Fleming, wheeled him back in a starter-allowance race. Competing exclusively in starter company ever since, Golden Hare then won twice more at Remington, then at Sam Houston, Delta Downs, Oaklawn, again at Sam Houston, and Evangeline Downs. Finally, during Kentucky Derby Week at Churchill Downs, Golden Hare was beaten a nose at 3-5 when ridden by Garrett Gomez. He has gone on to win three times in as many starts, with two wins coming at Churchill and the other on the turf at Indiana Downs. Since being claimed, Golden Hare has earned more than $86,000.

Blasi said he and Fleming were "just guessing" that Golden Hare was worth claiming last summer. "Sometimes you just get lucky," Blasi said. "He could just as easily have been a bad one as a good one. That's the way it goes when you claim horses."

When Golden Hare runs Saturday, Blasi will be watching via simulcast from Monmouth Park in New Jersey, where he will be with Curlin, who runs Sunday as a heavy favorite in the Haskell Invitational. Kristin Crawford, who recently moved with an Asmussen string from Keeneland to Ellis, will saddle Golden Hare for the Express, which is restricted to horses that have run for $7,500 or less within the last year.

The richest Claiming Crown race is the Jewel, a $150,000 race at 1 1/8 miles. The starter condition for the Jewel is $35,000 within the last year.

This year marks the first time that Ellis will host the Claiming Crown, and only the second time the event has been run anywhere other than Canterbury Park in Minnesota. Philadelphia Park was the host track in 2002.

Claiming Crown coordinator Nat Wess said Tuesday that horses from all over the country have begun arriving at Ellis, where officials are expecting an ontrack crowd of perhaps 8,000 for the highlight of a 46-day meet.