07/27/2009 12:00AM

Claiming Crown sees sharp rise in crowd, handle


SHAKOPEE, Minn. - The Claiming Crown is not necessarily a big money-maker for Canterbury Park, but the annual seven-race series serves to legitimize the oft-overlooked track as the perennial host of a nationally recognized event. And by the time the 11th annual Claiming Crown was complete Saturday, it hardly could be argued that Canterbury has not achieved its goal.

Helping to punch that ticket of legitimacy was the parade of outstanding jockeys to visit the Canterbury winner's circle Saturday. Russell Baze, the Hall of Famer who was feted throughout the afternoon as the world's all-time winningest jockey, won two Claiming Crown events. Jamie Theriot, a rising Midwest star, also won two, including the richest race, the Jewel. And highly acclaimed jockeys Julien Leparoux, Robby Albarado, and E.T. Baird accounted for the other three races.

Track president Randy Sampson was elated with how the day unfolded, and although he stopped short of saying the track will host the 2010 Claiming Crown, it is widely assumed the event will return to Canterbury for the 10th time in 12 years.

Ontrack attendance of 11,324 was up 11 percent over the 2008 Claiming Crown, while all-sources handle on the seven races was $2,175,936, also up 11 percent. All-sources handle on the 11-race card was $2,872,459 (not including simulcasts imported into Canterbury), an increase of nearly 4 percent over 2008.

"I'm extremely satisfied with how the day went, not only from a business perspective, but also with the quality of the horses, trainers, and jockeys we were able to attract to Canterbury this year," said Sampson. "From any angle, I think this might have been the best one yet."

An announcement on the host site for the 2010 Claiming Crown is expected to come at the annual racetrack symposium in Tucson, Ariz., in December. Besides Canterbury, only Philadelphia Park (2002) and Ellis Park (2007) have hosted the Claiming Crown since the first running in 1999.

Beer drinkers toast Baze

Sampson agreed to a Saturday promotion that lowered beer prices to $1.50 if Baze won more than one race. So after Frisco Fox gave Baze his second win, Sampson had mixed feelings.

"Well, that one cost me," he said. "But I guess it's worth it to have the people enjoying this as much as they are."

The lower beer prices worked better than the T-shirt launcher meant to shoot giveaway T-shirts into the crowd from the winner's circle. The machine malfunctioned, leaving marketing personnel to fling the shirts into the stands with one of those huge hand-held slingshots. But overall, an enthusiastic and mostly youthful crowd enjoyed another fun Claiming Crown.

No one region or style dominated

On the track, there were no major biases to develop during the series. From the five main-track races, one winner led throughout, two rallied from fairly close, and two closed from well back. On the turf, one winner led throughout and another closed from just off the pace.

Perhaps the most telling statistic was the variety of destinations from where the winners came, demonstrating the melting-pot spirit of the Claiming Crown once again. Bright Hall came from Delaware, Mizzcan'tbewrong and Gran Estreno came from Chicago, Chasing the Prize and Antrim County came from Kentucky, and You're My Boy Blue and Frisco Fox came from Northern California.

Most of the winners benefited from great trips, including Gran Estreno, who avoided an ounce of trouble in the 13-horse Emerald.

"We were concerned about how big the field was and what that usually means, but you couldn't have drawn it up any better on a chalkboard," said Hilary Pridham, assistant to trainer Mike Stidham.

Fancy Runner, narrowly beaten by Antrim County in the Jewel, could have given Scott Lake, the all-time leading trainer in series history, a ninth win.

Wess intends to retire

Nat Wess, the indefatigable, do-it-all coordinator for the Crown, said Monday he probably has worked the event for the last time, although he has not ruled out returning for next year. Wess, 70, has been at the forefront of every Claiming Crown since the 1999 inaugural.

"My intention is to step down," he said. "There are some aspects to the job that can be difficult, but honestly, it's a job I've really, really enjoyed."