12/01/2011 1:09PM

Fair Grounds: Claiming Crown at a crossroads

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NEW ORLEANS − It’s a sign of the times: Rapid Redux, the most famous claiming-class horse in the world, won’t be in New Orleans on Saturday.

That’s when Fair Grounds will be hosting five Claiming Crown races. At its birth in 1999 the Claiming Crown got billed as the Breeders’ Cup for claimers, a day when blue-collar equines could step onto a national stage. Rapid Redux has won 20 races in a row, a modern American record. His name has made it onto home pages of racing websites worldwide and he has even come up as a Horse of the Year candidate.

But Rapid Redux stays home in Pennsylvania this week. His owner, Robert Cole, made some noise about Rapid Redux deserving the greater attention a trip to Fair Grounds would afford. The horse’s 20th win came past many Easterners’ bedtime at off-the-beaten-path Mountaineer Park. But in the end, Cole said it made no economic sense to spend $13,000 for a plane flight and run for the winner’s share of a $50,000 purse in the Claiming Crown Express.

The same thought may have occurred to a lot of other horsemen. Only 39 horses were entered Wednesday for the 13th Claiming Crown, a year after a record-low 49 participated in 2010. This year’s Claiming Crown consists of only five races, with the scheduled sixth race canceled because it failed to attract sufficient entries. In 2001, perhaps the Claiming Crown peak, 68 horses ran in six compelling races. Where does the Claiming Crown fit on the national scene?

Andy Schweigardt, the director of industry relations and development at the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, is the Claiming Crown point man for TOBA, one of the event’s prime movers. Asked if he believed the Claiming Crown had gone flat in recent years, Schweigardt said, “I don’t think I would totally disagree with that. I think the event is at a crossroads right now.”

The Claiming Crown actually is a misnomer whose consonance trumps a more accurate moniker − The Starter-Allowance Crown. Conceived by then-TOBA president Drew Cuoto as a means of jump-starting the return of racing to Birmingham Park in Alabama (which didn’t happen), the Claiming Crown concept was seized upon by Randy Sampson, president of Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn., which has hosted the Claiming Crown 10 of the event’s 12 years.

The Crown consists of either six or seven races run under starter-allowance conditions – this year there are six – though those conditions have changed over time. In the Claiming Crown’s first year, a horse had to have raced at least twice for the designated maximum claiming price during, roughly, the previous year. Now the starter-allowance eligibility goes all the way back to Jan.  1, 2010, and a horse has to have started only once for the designated tag.

Even with a relaxing of conditions, the Claiming Crown has become a tougher sell to horsemen not located in the event’s backyard. Two of the races, for horses who have started at a claiming price of $7,500 less, carry a purse of $50,000. At Parx Racing, where slot revenues fuel purses, an $8,000 starter-allowance race goes for a purse of $32,000. Horsemen in the region used to be regular participants in Claiming Crown races – Scott Lake, a Mid-Atlantic power, has won more Crown races, eight, than any trainer – but is it worth shipping 1,000 miles for a slightly bigger purse while facing stronger competition?

“No question, it has been a great event for Canterbury, putting our racing on the map, bringing a lot of attention that otherwise wouldn’t happen,” Sampson said. “It has served a purpose. At the same time, talking about the purse levels, for it to be successful they need to grow, and that’s something very difficult with the situation we’re in with our purses declining.”

Sampson said it is unclear whether the Claiming Crown will be coming home to Canterbury next year. And it remains to be seen whether Fair Grounds will have an interest in hosting again in 2012.

Eric Halstrom, vice president and general manager of Fair Grounds, was the mutuels manager at Canterbury when the Claiming Crown came into existence. His familiarity with the event guided it to New Orleans this year.

“We’re going to have to talk about the future,” Halstrom said. “We want to have the event, and we’re interested in events in general. I’d think there has to be some changes to some of the races, though.”

Halstrom said the Claiming Crown “never was a money-maker” and functioned more as a way to get more eyes and betting dollars on the host track. Louisiana horsemen are putting up the purse money through the Fair Grounds purse account, and Claiming Crown day is conducted the same as any other afternoon of racing at Fair Grounds.

It’s an open question whether a track like Fair Grounds, which has a $1 million race (the Louisiana Derby) and a solid open-stakes schedule throughout its meet, stands to benefit from Claiming Crown attention, though the heart of the stakes schedule here doesn’t really begin until January.

The two times the Crown left Canterbury it went to venues with a lower profile than Fair Grounds − Philadelphia Park in 2002 and Ellis Park in 2007. Both times, entries from distant jurisdictions suffered. At Philadelphia, six races drew 51 starters, and only 12 horses shipped in from outside the region. At Ellis, seven races drew 68 runners, but 36 had last raced either at Ellis or nearby Churchill Downs. The number of out-of-region participants declined to its lowest level last summer, with nine horses who had not made their most recent start in a relatively nearby Midwest track.

The same trend exists this year. While there are more Florida-based horses intended for Claiming Crown races than ever before, only a handful of runners are coming from outside the south region or Kentucky. 
Schweigardt said Claiming Crown officials “were hoping that moving it to a larger venue and track with a larger simulcasting distribution would bring more exposure for the event and carry over to future years.” 

“Having it at Fair Grounds for the first time,” he said, “we had expected nominations to be down from what we were doing at Canterbury, but we were hoping for a higher percentage of nominees in the races. We weren’t sure how anyone would react. We had anticipated things being down. I didn’t have a number in my head, but this is lower than I anticipated.”

The Claiming Crown never was going to be a major event, since claimers are at its core. Still, the early years had energy. There were horses who had last started at 19 or 20 different venues in 1999, 2000, and 2001, and in the last of those three years, 25 horses came from distant venues compared with 24 locals. It was one of only two years when the long-distance shippers outnumbered the home-track runners. In a way, that echoed the Breeders’ Cup dynamic, with horses from so many different regions, venues, and circumstances thrown into one mildly fascinating handicapping orchestra.

On Friday, the Claiming Crown principals − TOBA, the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, Halstrom, and Sampson − will meet to discuss the future of the event. Getting back to the brightest years of the Claiming Crown’s past is the goal. How to get there is the more vexing question.