07/24/2009 12:00AM

Claiming Crown now part of mainstream


SHAKOPEE, Minn. - Like any new venture, the Claiming Crown was a concept that drew blank stares and quizzical comments in its formative years. But as the series has matured, its coordinator, Nat Wess, has found horsemen and racing fans to be far more cognizant of its existence and purpose.

"I get very few people now saying, 'What's Claiming Crown?,' which I got a lot of in the early years," said Wess.

On Saturday at Canterbury Park, the Claiming Crown will further entrench itself into the North American racing psyche when the seven-race, $600,000 series is run for the 11th time. Inaugurated in 1999 at Canterbury as a way to honor the unsung heroes of the sport, the event enters its second decade as a well-established pilgrimage for horses that rarely find racing's spotlight.

"I always keep the Claiming Crown in mind for my horses," said Scott Lake, the all-time leading trainer in event history with eight wins. "It's a great event and a lot of fun."

Lake will saddle four starters Saturday, including Fancy Runner, one of the contenders in the anchor race, the $150,000 Claiming Crown Jewel. Haltered on June 1 from the one-man show of owner-trainer-jockey Clyde Martin, Fancy Runner "has gone famine-to-feast" in terms of being part of a team, joked Lake, who operates one of the biggest and most active stables on the continent.

"He needed his last race," said Lake. "I was waiting on races to go for him, but they wouldn't, and that's why I hadn't been breezing him. But he's doing great. He's coming up to this the right way."

Fancy Runner, with Jeremy Rose to ride, is one of six starters in the Jewel, which has always been the richest and final race in the series. The Claiming Crown comprises races 3 through 9 on an 11-race Saturday card that starts at 1:30 p.m. Central. The first Claiming Crown race, the $50,000 Iron Horse, is set for 2:35. TVG will have on-site coverage of all the races, with Ken Rudulph and Matt Carothers in from California to provide commentary and analysis.

All Claiming Crown races are run under starter-allowance conditions, with eligibility open to horses that have started for claiming prices ranging from $7,500 to $35,000 since Jan. 1, 2008. The Jewel represents the top end of that scale, with horses having competed for $35,000 or less within that specified time frame.

The likely favorite for the 1 1/8-mile Jewel is Antrim County, whose 3 1/2-length score in the 2008 Iron Horse puts him in a position to become the first horse ever to win a second event in the series. Other horses have repeated in the Claiming Crown, but only in the same race.

With a career record of 14 wins and 30 in-money finishes from 51 starts, Antrim County embodies the Claiming Crown profile.

"He's been a very durable horse, the kind you'd love to have a barnful of," said his trainer, Bret Calhoun.

The Claiming Crown is a cooperative effort of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.