08/27/2002 11:00PM

Claiming Crown plays - and passes

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The highest class of racing in the country isn't taking place at Philadelphia Park this Saturday - only some of the most interesting.

The Claiming Crown is a series of stakes races for former claiming horses. As in past years - when the races were run at Canterbury Park - the fields are intriguing handicapping contests.

The first Claiming Crown race, which features an 8-year-old, a 9-year-old, and a 10-year-old, is appropriately called the Iron Horse. The most likely winner is Ruskin.

A winner of eight of 11 races at Philadelphia Park, Ruskin has the home-track edge. He also has Scott Lake training him, and there has been no more dominant claiming trainer in America over the last few years.

A short price on this horse will likely create value on Regal Tour and Praise Heaven, a pair of shippers. Regal Tour has been first or second in four starts since joining the Dallas Keen stable, and Praise Heaven, although off form in his last two starts, was good enough to win a $25,000 claimer earlier this year at Delaware Park.

A race later, former $7,500 claimers race six furlongs in the Crown Express. Talknow, a winner of more than $107,000 this year, is the choice. He dominated starter allowances in New Orleans and Chicago earlier this year, and has performed respectably in stakes in recent months.

In addition to his apparent class edge, he has earned Beyer Speed Figures of 93 or higher in seven or his last eight starts.

Danny E, a winner of three straight starts, and stakes dropper Wise Sweep are his chief adversaries.

Fillies and mares compete in the eighth, the Glass Slipper Stakes for females that have raced for a claiming price of $12,500 or less.

It is no surprise that Lake saddles another favorite, Final Dispersal. She has won seven of eight starts since joining his stable, and is at her best at Philadelphia Park.

Playmera also enters the race with seven victories from her last eight starts. She is a value-oriented alternative to Final Dispersal if that one is hammered at the betting windows.

The final three races, the ninth through the 11th, are the three richest races.

The $100,000 Rapid Transit offers a field of horses converging from different parts of the country, which makes handicapping the race a puzzle.

Brown Eyed Major, who narrowly won an Ellis Park allowance race last month, gets the nod because of his strong recent form and 10-for-25 record.

The oldest horse in the Claiming Crown - the 11-year-old Sir Echo - participates in the Emerald, a $125,000 race on the grass. He won a stakes race for Pennsylvania-breds over the the Philadelphia Park turf course and enters this race at the top of his game.

He should be an overlaid contender with the public expected to pound Nowrass, who was recently a close second in a Saratoga allowance race.

Although Nowrass looks imposing, he doesn't fit the blue-collar profile of a horse who generally wins the Claiming Crown. He'll be a short price, and I'll try to beat him with Sir Echo and a few others.

The card concludes with the Claiming Crown Jewel, a $150,000 race that looks like a showdown between Prince Iroquois and Truly a Judge.

Prince Iroquois, recent winner of the Ark-La-Tex Handicap, was sent to trainer Randy Allen for the Claiming Crown after racing effectively for Cole Norman at Lone Star and Louisiana Downs.

Truly a Judge, meanwhile, has earned over $120,000 since being claimed for $20,000 last fall at Santa Anita. After knocking heads with top-class allowance opposition on the West Coast, his future is bright in a restricted stakes.

He can run down Prince Iroquois and the others from just off the pace.