07/22/2010 2:35PM

Claiming Crown proving a difficult draw

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SHAKOPEE, Minn. – The Claiming Crown has long been a melting pot, bringing together horses from East and West coasts and numerous points in between on a terrific day of racing.

For numerous reasons, that formula didn’t exactly work for the 12th running Saturday at Canterbury Park, and a noticeable lack of representation from both coasts has Claiming Crown officials concerned for the long-term viability of the series. Surely, the biggest problem is that Claiming Crown purses, which essentially have remained the same since the 1999 inaugural, no longer are big enough to entice widespread participation.

“Obviously with the growing competition on the East Coast, particularly Monmouth Park, and the big purses at some of the tracks with casinos, it’s made our job much more difficult in recruiting horses for the Claiming Crown,” said Dan Metzger, president of one of the sponsoring organizations, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. “Maybe it’s a sign of the times, too, with the tough economy and all the costs involved with shipping halfway across the country. We all know it’s been a couple of bumpy years for the entire industry, and the Claiming Crown is an example of that struggle.”

Scott Lake, who leads all trainers in Claiming Crown history in starts and wins, said he could have sent two horses to Canterbury from his Eastern base this year, but circumstances couldn’t justify it. Instead, he will miss the event for just the second time.

“I’m sick that I’m not there,” Lake said. “The Claiming Crown is always a great time. I really thought about sending Wink at the Girls and Threetimesawonder there, but there are races here for them with purses just as big, and the spots shouldn’t be as tough, either.”

Metzger said a re-evaluation process of the Claiming Crown will have to take place in the near future. TOBA co-sponsors the event with the national Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, along with the host track and their local horsemen’s organization.

“This event probably hasn’t reached its original projections, but it has found a pretty nice niche, and that’s a testament to the horsemen and fans that support it,” Metzger said. “We’d love to raise the purses, but you have to have the wagering handle to sustain that, so that becomes problematic. We’ll sit down with our partners and try to draw up a road map as to where we should head. I know we’re going to have to reach out to horsemen and let them know what we have to offer. This has been a terrific event, but clearly the competition in different corridors of the country is posing some difficulty for us.”

Mitchell shipping in from Emerald

Outside of his isolated racing circuit in the Pacific Northwest, Gallyn “Bugger” Mitchell hardly is a household name. But when the 47-year-old jockey comes to the Claiming Crown for the first time Saturday, making a rare venture away from home, it will be as the pride of Emerald Downs in Washington.

Mitchell will be here to ride two horses for trainer Vann Belvoir, who also has longstanding Washington ties. He will ride No Flies On Doodle in the Glass Slipper and Elusive Schemes in the Emerald.

Mitchell, the all-time leading rider at Emerald with more than 1,000 wins, has an extremely interesting background. He has been a movie stuntman since age 5, having appeared in such films as “Seabiscuit” and the Mark Wahlberg remake of “Planet of the Apes.” Moreover, his wife, Denise, has served as his agent since 1995.

◗ Fans who haven’t been here for a while may notice that the Canterbury Hall of Fame exhibit long situated near the main first-floor entrance has been moved to accommodate the ever-growing card-and-casino operation. The display has been moved to the second floor, where photographs of such luminaries as Carl Nafzger, Sandy Hawley, and the late Dean Kutz are among the dozens of local Hall of Fame members.

◗ Canterbury is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, having opened on June 26, 1985, to great fanfare. During brief remarks at the Claiming Crown breakfast Wednesday, track president Randy Sampson marveled at how the track has evolved.

“We love exposing our little slice of horse racing heaven to folks from out of town,” Sampson said.