08/02/2001 12:00AM

Courageous Kutz announces comeback


SHAKOPEE, Minn. - One of the most popular figures in the 17-year history of Canterbury Park has come home for Claiming Crown weekend.

Dean Kutz, the North Dakota native who was Canterbury's leading rider in 1987 and 1988, was honored as a special guest at the Claiming Crown draw breakfast Wednesday. Kutz was given a rousing ovation before being recognized for outstanding career achievement and his extraordinary courage in the face of personal adversity.

Kutz, who has not ridden competitively since February 1999 because of health problems, announced at the breakfast that he plans to return to riding Wednesday at Ellis Park on what is now his home circuit of Kentucky.

Kutz, who lost his voice box to throat cancer, has been working himself into shape by exercising horses at his Versailles, Ky., farm. This week, he exercised horses at Canterbury for trainers Doug Oliver and Bernell Rhone, among others.

Earlier this year, Kutz was honored by his fellow jockeys in an emotional ceremony at Santa Anita after being named the winner of the prestigious George Woolf Award.

Crowns Runner, a Claiming Crown natural

When Hal Wiggins claimed Crowns Runner for Millsap Stables three years ago, the gelding already had had a decent career for Elliott Walden. Crowns Runner, typically competitive at high claiming levels, went off form soon after changing hands, but Wiggins brings him into the Rapid Transit off a string of sharp efforts.

"He's got chronic quarter crack problems in his back hooves," said Wiggins. But right now we've kind of got him going his way. His last three or four races have been real good."

Wiggins planned to be here Saturday for his first Claiming Crown. Like many trainers, he endorses the Claiming Crown concept, especially since he has a solid contender in Crowns Runner, now 8. "He's just a true claiming horse," said Wiggins. "He's a pretty good representative of what this Claiming Crown is all about."

Cautious a big deal for Jackson

No, trainer Chris Jackson has never won a $125,000 race. In fact, until Cautious raced prominently throughout to upset a solid field of entry-level allowance horses on June 27 at Churchill Downs, Jackson had never won a race worth as much as $43,690.

So winning the $125,000 Emerald with Cautious would make Jackson a happy man indeed. "I've looked this race over, and there's a lot of speed in it," he said. "My horse doesn't have to have the lead. I'm looking for the same type of performance he gave when he won at Churchill."

Crown attendance likely to drop

While an estimated crowd of 14,000 turned out last year for the Claiming Crown, Canterbury officials are hoping merely to break the five-figure mark Saturday.

Last year, the Claiming Crown coincided with the NTRA Mystery Mutuel Voucher promotion. This year's promotion was held last Saturday, when attendance was about 9,000.

Last year, temperatures were in the low 80's with no humidity. This year, 90's and humidity are in the forecast.

But perhaps more importantly, the Claiming Crown is being crowded off the local sports pages and sportscasts. The death of Vikings lineman Korey Stringer has had massive media attention, and Minnesota legends Ron Yary (football) and Kirby Puckett (baseball) are being inducted into their respective Halls of Fame this weekend.

Score one for Minnesota

When Bucnasty breaks from the gate in the Iron Horse, he will make history as the first Minnesota-bred to compete in the Claiming Crown. That bit of trivia may come as something of a surprise to local fans, considering how many Minnesota-breds are stabled at their home track.

In other firsts Saturday: Something Classy, a major contender in the Glass Slipper, is the first horse to travel from Washington for the Crown; she is an Alberta-bred. And Eve's Troupe, an outsider in the Jewel, is the first Iowa-bred in the Crown.

In its three years, the Claiming Crown has been very much a melting pot, according to event coordinator Nat Wess. "After Saturday, we will have had horses from 21 states and five foreign countries in the Claiming Crown," said Wess.

Good business

Overall, business has been solid at Canterbury, which went through rough times during much of the 1990's. Thanks largely to the ontrack card club, officials expect per-day purses to exceed $120,000 when the 61-day meet ends Sept. 3.

Ten percent of the first $6 million in gross revenue from the card club goes toward purses. After that, 14 percent goes to purses.

"Obviously we wouldn't be able to give away what we have without the card club," said director of operations Eric Halstrom.

The improved purse structure has helped Canterbury attain a healthy average of 9.1 horses per race, which, through 43 days, has helped to lift average all-sources handle to $655,712, up 5 percent over last year.

* Whereas a typical Saturday at Canterbury draws only about $90,000 in offtrack handle, Claiming Crown is a far different animal. Claiming Crown races drew nearly $1.2 million in offtrack wagers last year. Halstrom said he is hoping for something similar this year.

* Canterbury officials have delighted in hosting the first three Claiming Crowns, but that role will fall to another track in 2002, '04, '06, and '08. Canterbury is contracted to host the event in alternate years through '07. According to Crown officials, the two tracks that have expressed the most interest in having the event next year are Philadelphia Park and Lone Star Park.