08/01/2007 11:00PM

Claimers could lead the way

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The Claiming Crown is one of racing's most entertaining and worthwhile summer events, but one that has yet to transcend its local success at Canterbury Park to become a nationally compelling event. Will moving it from July to August and from Canterbury to Ellis Park this year make the difference?

Ron Geary, the three-time National Handicapping Championship finalist who bought Ellis last year and has already delighted horseplayers by instituting a daily pick four with a 4 percent takeout, thought relocating the races to his track might help. There is a larger population of local horses to draw on in the Kentucky area, and pre-entries for the seven stakes races for recent claimers - those who have started for tags of $7,500, $16,000, $25,000 or $35,000 since last Aug. 1 - were significantly higher this year. Field sizes will be at least as good as they were at Canterbury, which had done an excellent job hosting seven of the eight previous runnings, all but the 2002 edition at Philadelphia Park, and where the series will return next year.

The biggest challenge this year will be breaking through the simulcast noise of an August Saturday. At least rivals Television Games Network and HorseRacing TV are playing nice for a day and both will televise the races, but they're a tight fit on a crowded menu. Canterbury has run most of its Crowns in mid-July, before Del Mar and Saratoga open and cast their siren calls on American horseplayers. This year, instead of competing with the wind-down cards at Belmont and Hollywood, the Crown is up against Del Mar and Saratoga programs with Grade 1 features (the Test and Mabee), as well as the $750,000 West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer. Will handicappers take the additional time on a busy day of Saturday simulcast action to sort through the past performances of volatile and far-flung claimers running at Ellis Park?

They should. The races are not only tough and potentially rewarding, but feature one admirable old warrior after another. There's Golden Hare, beaten two lengths in the 2002 Grade 1 Malibu, who sunk to the $3,500 nonwinners-of-two level before being claimed by Steve Asmussen's assistant Scott Blasi, and winning 11 of his last 12 starts; Semi Lost, who won the 2004 Pomona Derby and returned to racing this summer after nearly three years on the sidelines; and Habaneros, the 2004 Carleton F. Burke winner who has become a reliable $25,000 claimer at Canterbury.

The Claiming Crown is the genuine version of the fake story racing tries to sell around its major events. Unlike the carefully managed breeding prospects we're lucky to see make 10 career starts, these are the true "Cinderella" or "blue-collar" horses of the sport, the ones whose long and checkered careers generate the mutuel handle that ultimately supports the high-stakes speculation at the very top of the game.

Some of the nation's top claiming outfits have supported and even focused on the Crown since its inception, particularly trainer Scott Lake and the owners Robert Bone and Richard Englander, and this year's roster also includes such claiming powerhouses as Steve Asmussen, Gary Contessa, Rick Dutrow, and Jeff Mullins. Yet there's no sense that these are truly the best and fastest ex-claimers in the land, or that horsemen nationwide are thinking about next year's Claiming Crown when they reach in and made a claim. There are dozens of horses on the New York and California circuits who have run for the qualifying prices and would be very competitive in Saturday's events. But where's the incentive to ship to Kentucky or Minnesota for a $75,000 Claiming Crown purse when they're writing $80,000 overnight stakes every day at Saratoga? Even the $150,000 Jewel, the highlight of the card and open to any horse who has run for $35,000 or less in the last year, has just 10 entrants, and half of them would be 10-1 or higher in a weekday $35,000 claimer on a major circuit.

Boosting the Claiming Crown purses and properly promoting the event will require a surge in mutuel handle that may simply be impossible to generate. There might, however, be another way to raise its profile and get some momentum going.

Between the Barbaro saga and a rising tide of general concern for animal welfare, there is more interest and support than ever for equine retirement programs and efforts, but no focal racing event tied to these issues. Perhaps Claiming Crown could fill that role and become an industry-wide day of recognition for its claimers, with special races around the country, appearances by retired local heroes of recent seasons, and fund-raising and informational efforts on behalf of the always-needy organizations looking after the claimers who can't run any more.

It could be a great day for racing each year, and it's the right thing to do.