07/16/2003 11:00PM

Claiming game needs old rules back

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It's time once again for the help to eat in the dining room. Downstairs gets to live upstairs, at least for one golden afternoon. On Saturday at Canterbury Park, a short hop from the Mall of America, the fifth running of the Claiming Crown will be presented, with $550,000 offered to six fields full of 63 working-class heroes.

There is a place for such an event in horse racing. Every once in a while, the guys who do the grunt work need a pat on the back. Chances are, for most of the horses in the Claiming Crown, this will be the first time their names will appear in anything larger than agate type, buried in the back of the sports section.

But hope springs eternal. Every so often, one of them sheds his claiming chains and soars. Their patron saints include Seabiscuit, Stymie, and John Henry, all of them one-time claimers who escaped the ghetto and were transformed into champions.

It is important, however, to keep things straight. The Claiming Crown is not the Breeders' Cup. It's not even the Sunshine Millions. It is a series of starter allowances for horses who have run for claiming prices ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 in the past year. It is a sideshow, a major event for the minor leagues, and an opportunity to have a good time in the Minnesota sunshine before night falls and the mosquitoes come out to feed.

It is also a fact of life that it is the claimers who make the engine of American parimutuel racing roll along. On any given day, upwards of 75 percent of the horses competing across the country will be in some type of claiming-based event. A cross section of coast-to-coast Friday programs looks like this:

* Arlington Park - nine races, six claimers, one starter allowance.

* Belmont Park - nine races, four claimers.

* Calder - 11 races, eight claimers, two optional claimers.

* Ellis Park - 10 races, seven claimers.

* Emerald Downs - nine races, eight claimers, one starter allowance.

* Hollywood Park - eight races, five claimers, two optional claimers.

* Louisiana Downs - 11 races, seven claimers, one starter allowance.

* Monmouth Park - nine races, five claimers, two optional claimers.

* Prairie Meadows - 10 races, six claimers.

* Woodbine - 10 races, seven claimers.

Nobody knows the claiming business better than America's leading trainer, Bobby Frankel. He played the game hard for the first dozen years of his career, making a name for himself in both New York and California as a trainer who could find jewels hidden at the bottom of the barrel.

He won the 1970 Suburban Handicap with Barometer, a claimer, the same year he won the training title at Saratoga. In 1972, his first full year in California, he won with 60 of 180 starters at Hollywood Park, nearly all of them claimers.

Asked to name his favorite claimers, Frankel rattled off Pataha Prince, Strong Award, Baitman, Minstrel Grey, Fingal, Zanthe, No Turning - and then took a breath.

"I'm sure there's a lot more I can't think of right now," he said.

For the past 25 years, Frankel's name has been associated with top-class runners. He worked hard to get to that point, and he encourages others to follow. However, the claiming game of 2003 is significantly different from the world of 30 years ago, when Frankel reigned supreme. He sees two major changes: purses and jail time.

"I can't believe the huge purses for claiming horses, especially compared to allowance races," Frankel said. "It's a deterrent for people to go out and buy good horses, when you can claim a horse for $50,000 and run him right back for a purse the same as what he's worth. Sometimes more. Where's the incentive to improve your stock? I mean, unless I made a huge, really good claim, I'd rarely even raise a horse nowadays.

"There's less horsemanship, the way claiming is now," Frankel went on, "but it depends on who you are, and how much you care about the animal. With a lot of guys, it's a quick fix. You get one, you start injecting, you call the vet. Now you've got clenbuterol, and everything else you can stick into these horses."

Economic pressures have prompted a reduction, in some jurisdictions, of the time a claimed horse must spend "in jail" before he can run for price lower than the one for which he was claimed. The traditional period was 30 days.

"Some places you don't even have to wait 30 days," Frankel said. "You can run them back two days later. And I'm really against it. I think that 30-day limit encourages horsemanship, because I'm thinking of the horse.

"Years ago, you claimed a horse that wasn't any good, that was sore or had problems, you had to wait your 30 days, work on the horse, and get him as sound as possible. Then if you wanted to drop him, you could drop him.

"Nowadays, you keep him for a few weeks, do everything you can to him, and you can drop him in half and still be running for a good purse," Frankel noted. "The horse is just a commodity now, like NASCAR."

So enjoy the Claiming Crown, and delight in the colorful competition, the full fields and pageantry. But remember, the idea is to eventually improve the breed.

"I had a Hall of Fame trainer tell me back then I was crazy to get out of the claiming business," Frankel added. "I didn't pay any attention."

Smart move.