07/13/2006 12:00AM

Claimers a cause to rally around


NEW YORK - Saturday's eighth running of the Claiming Crown at Canterbury Park faces strong competition for horseplayers' attention and simulcast dollars. It is up against not only the regular full cards at Belmont, Hollywood, and Churchill, but also strong special events in Calder's Summit of Speed and Colonial's Virginia Derby and Oaks program.

Business on the Claiming Crown sunk to a record low $556,000 in ontrack and $1.37 million in offtrack handle under similar circumstances a year ago. While there were some mitigating weather and television-coverage issues that particularly hurt last year, the event generally seems to be in a rut at best. Purses have not grown meaningfully since the inaugural Crown in 1999, and some of this year's fields have a lean and hungry look, with only 63 entries in the seven races and three fields of six or seven.

That's a shame, because the Claiming Crown is both a genuine feel-good event at a track with its heart in the right place and a worthy celebration of the American claiming horse who keeps the game going. Seven modest stakes races for horses who have run for a tag in the last 12 months is a small tribute to these warriors, one that deserves even more prominence. It has a perfect home in Canterbury, with its central location and outstanding local promotion of a day that routinely attracts a crowd of more than 10,000, but it needs more national attention, more purse money, and more aggressive promotion.

There are two ways that could happen.

The first would be to get tracks across the country to embrace the idea and make this a national day of celebrating the claimers. Local claiming favorites not running in the Crown itself might be honored and publicized in ceremonies at each track. Perhaps there could even be an old-timers' race at each track limited to 7-year-olds and up or horses who have made at least 100 career starts.

The second would be to expand the good intentions behind the celebration of claiming horses into a national day or recognition and attention for equine retirement and adoption efforts. Much good work is being done by organizations scattered around the country, but the sport needs a focal point for the issue and Claiming Crown seems an ideal candidate. There could be informational booths and video presentations at all the tracks and a coordinated program of fund-raising and publicity.

Racing's senior citizens are great stories. There aren't many horseplayers west of the Ozarks who haven't crossed paths with Full Moon Madness, the elder statesman of this year's Claiming Crown and 8-1 in Saturday's sixth at Canterbury, the Rapid Transit, for horses who have run for a $16,000 or lower claiming price in the last year. Now 11 years old, Full Moon Madness, a California-bred son of a Riverman stallion and Secretariat mare, began his career at Hollywood in June of 1997. His 64 career starts include 39 stakes appearances from Albuquerque to Hollywood to Prairie Meadows, and he was second in the 2005 Sunshine Millions Sprint. He has banked $1.2 million but was claimed for just $16,000 at Santa Anita this past January. Since then he has run in seven stakes at five different tracks, winning one at Turf Paradise and placing at Albuquerque, Canter-bury, and Sunland.

The longest lines at Belmont Park on Belmont Stakes Day were not for hot dogs or exactas but to sign an oversized get-well card for Barbaro. The outpouring of concern surrounding that colt only hints at the depth of feeling that serious and casual fans have for their horses, feelings that may run even deeper for the gallant old claiming warriors who entertain them year after year after year.

Canterbury's partners in presenting the Claiming crown are the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, two national organizations with the clout and resources to turn a valiant local production into a much bigger national event. Claiming Crown should be a day when tracks put aside their battle for simulcast supremacy and work together to celebrate their core product. Greater awareness, cooperation, and promotion of the Claiming Crown would lead to fuller fields, higher handle, and perhaps a day truly worthy of the unrecognized and underappreciated horses who make up the vast majority of American racing.