06/04/2004 12:00AM

Claiming wars starting to heat up


SAN MATEO, Calif. - The claiming game is not for the timid, and it is being played hard these days in northern California.

"It's like Russian roulette," said trainer Brian Koriner, who in 2000 claimed Hoovergetthekeys for $32,000 and turned him into a multiple graded-stakes winner.

Through the first two months (41 racing days) of the current Bay Meadows meeting, 243 horses have been claimed for a total of $3,013,200. On the four days from Friday through Memorial Day, 33 horses were claimed for $373,600. There were multiple claims on nearly half of the horses.

The claiming activity could point to a revitalization of racing in northern California, perhaps because steps are being taken to solve the workers' compensation issue in the state.

"It looks like people are claiming a lot more," said trainer Art Sherman, second in the Bay Meadows standings. "With the short fields, it's lucrative to have horses running. It doesn't make much difference if they're in for $20,000 or $25,000 or $16,000. It's good to have horses."

As the fair season approaches, even lower-level horses become valuable additions to a stable.

"The lower level, you look at a lot differently and play differently," said trainer Bill Morey, who won his first $100,000 stakes with Trapper, a $32,000 claim, last year.

"From the bottom [$3,200] to $12,500, I try to be ultra-aggressive. You pretty much know what you've got. They're most likely horses you won't have for a long period of time. Twenty-five [thousand] on up, you're not as aggressive. You may be looking at someone you can campaign for a year and maybe move up."

The claiming game is competitive, and sometimes egos can be bruised.

"A lot of us are middle-aged men, and we're aggressive," trainer John Martin said. "This is like playing a board game that we're trying to win. I think egos do exist in the game. Sometimes it hurts when certain trainers take one away from you."

Martin paid $50,000 to claim Yougottawanna from leading trainer Jerry Hollendorfer at Golden Gate Fields. Yougottawanna, who won the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at 3, ran second in the Grade 3 Berkeley Breeders' Cup Handicap for Martin and won an $80,000 claimer at Bay Meadows.

Hollendorfer re-claimed him for $80,000, and then won the Grade 3 Seabiscuit Breeders' Cup Handicap with him on Memorial Day.

The mano-a-mano claiming wars of yesteryear are rare, but Hollendorfer, who has the biggest barn, has plenty of leverage and is quick to claim from his nearest rivals.

"It's like drafting in the NFL," Hollendorfer said of claiming. "You're looking for an athlete.

"It's much more difficult than it used to be. If you have an empty stall, and a horse fits into the program, you better look."

Not all claims turn out.

"The more horses you claim, the more you realize you're going to make good claims and bad claims," Morey said.

The key is to be able to evaluate a claim quickly, and know when to drop a horse so someone else will claim him.

"Sometimes you want to lose horses," Sherman said.

But a trainer can't drop only the horses he wants to lose, or others would stop claiming from him. Sometimes a trainer has to risk losing a horse for below his true value, knowing that in the long run such a move will keep other trainers guessing.

"I try not to be predictable," said Martin, one of the top hands at the claiming game. "Sometimes you have to throw your opponents a curveball so your pattern is not predictable, and it works."

Trainers use different criteria to decide which horses to claim.

"You can overthink a situation," Koriner said. "You just have to go if you like one. You can't second-guess yourself."

Sherman said: "We talk about it and see if we think it's worth the money. There are certain horses, I like the way they handle themselves. Everybody looks for something different. I look for consistency.

"I keep charts on a daily basis and try to watch every race every day. You have to keep up with what's happening and pay attention to different categories."

It only takes one person to like a horse, whether it's a bottom-level $8,000 maiden, a $3,200 winner, or even a horse with an $80,000 claiming tag.

The claiming game is many things, but there is one thing it is not.

"It is not a game for the weak," Koriner said.