Updated on 09/17/2011 10:59AM

Gill gets involved


SHAKOPEE, Minn. - Owner Michael Gill has been such a dominant force in the North American claiming game in recent years that his limited participation in the Claiming Crown has seemed rather conspicuous. Gill dispatched two also-rans to Philadelphia Park last year, the only time he has ever bothered with the Claiming Crown.

This year, however, Gill has sent three major contenders to Canterbury Park, and it would come as little surprise if his horses returned home with a trophy or two. Gill's blue and white silks will be carried by Sentimental Romance in the Glass Slipper, Pioneer Boy in the Rapid Transit, and Native Two Stepper in the richest race of the series, the $150,000 Claiming Crown Jewel.

Native Two Stepper, one of eight starters in the 1 1/8-mile Jewel, was accompanied to Minnesota by Pat Devereux Jr., who is based at Gill's southeastern Pennsylvania training center as a top assistant to trainer Mark Shuman. Devereux said the Gill team has been eager to run Native Two Stepper back in a relatively short period, and with the Jewel coming just nine days since the gelding ran second in an allowance race at Monmouth, Saturday can't come soon enough for Devereux.

"He's such a big, good-doing horse that he ought to love running right back," Devereux said.

Native Two Stepper is just one of a handful of logical contenders in the Jewel, which is restricted to horses which have run for a claiming price of $25,000 or less within the last year.

The other main players are Daunting, who has been terrific in recent starts in California; Northwest Hill, whose last two races resulted in triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures; and Patton's Victory, who ran fourth last Saturday in the Grade 3 Cornhusker Breeders' Cup at Prairie Meadows.

"I normally don't run a horse back this quick," said Stanley Roberts, trainer of Patton's Victory. "But he bounced out of his race so good, and he's sound physically, so we're going to take a shot."

Other Jewel starters are Freeze Alert, Our Best Man, Watch Your Pennies, and Woostershear.

Emerald: Lone turf race wide open

The $125,000 Emerald (starter conditions, $20,000), the only grass race in the series, probably is the most difficult to break down, too. With its strongest contenders having shipped in from a wide variety of tracks, the race symbolizes how the Claiming Crown can evoke the melting-pot effect that handicappers enjoy.

Mega Gift probably will be a slight favorite, having drawn post 1 for California's hottest trainer, Jeff Mullins. Ginontherocks could be a major front-end danger after last racing in a sprint at Penn National. Banner Boy hasn't raced since last September but won back-to-back grass races at Pimlico during that month.

Image and North of Six both won recent allowance races at Arlington Park. W W Robin De Hood might be the best distance horse based at Fairmount Park. Unpeteable has been a terror in recent starter-allowance races at River Downs. Trinity River and Ryan's Partner ran one-two in a Canterbury grass allowance three weeks ago.

Clearly, the Emerald is not a race lacking for options.

Glass Slipper: Margarita time

Even trainer Dale Capuano is amazed by the progress Margarita's Garden has made since he assumed her care last summer.

In her first start for Capuano, the filly finished third in a never-won-two $4,000 claiming route at Mountaineer Park. But since then, Margarita's Garden has won eight of nine starts, all at seven furlongs or shorter. Her sensational turn of foot makes her the filly to beat in the $75,000 Glass Slipper (starter conditions, $12,500).

"She's just gotten better as she's kept winning," said Capuano. "I really don't have an answer for why she's improved as much as she has, other than she's a really fast horse."

Other contenders in the 6 1/2-furlong Glass Slipper, the only race of the series restricted to fillies and mares, include Mum's Gold, who is 4 for 4 for jockey-turned-trainer Chris Landicini Jr., and So Social, who would give trainer Scott Lake a third win in the race.

Express: Pelican Beach odds-on

Lake also has won two previous runnings of the $50,000 Express (starter conditions, $7,500), with Spit Polish in 2000 and The Maccabee in 2001. A third win might be well on its way, since Pelican Beach figures as the heaviest favorite of the series.

Pelican Beach won six straight races before finishing second as the favorite in his last start, an overnight stakes at Philadelphia Park.

Iron Horse: Full gate of 14

Lake once again looms large with Wise Talk, one of a handful of logical contenders in the opening race of the series, the $50,000 Iron Horse (starter conditions, $5,000).

By drawing the 14-horse maximum, the Iron Horse is ideally situated as the start of the Claiming Crown pick six.