08/06/2001 12:00AM

Handle soars along with heat, humidity


SHAKOPEE, Minn. - Matt Robertson looked as if he had dunked his arms in a bucket of water just before entering the winner's circle after the Claiming Crown Emerald.

Robertson, like virtually everyone else, was perspiring to an absurd degree. How cold does it get in Minnesota in the winter? Well, that's how hot it was Saturday.

The oppressive heat and humidity that enveloped this suburban patch of Minnesota during the third annual Claiming Crown was such that attendance was down significantly from last year's running. Only 8,078 showed up, well behind the nearly 14,000 in 2000.

Nevertheless, all-sources handle on the 11-race Saturday card set a Canterbury record, seemingly proving that the concept of the Claiming Crown is growing in national stature. Counting the $2.5 million bet amid the cooler environs of some 450 offtrack simulcast outlets throughout North America, more than $3.15 million was bet, easily surpassing the first two years.

The ontrack numbers were "disappointing," conceded Randy Sampson, Canterbury's president, even in the face of strong mitigating circumstances such as the brutal weather and a diversion of local attention to major happenings in other sports. "But the out-of-state wagering certainly was encouraging. People are starting to recognize this as a great day of racing."

Robertson, son of and assistant to trainer Hugh Robertson, who was in Chicago, typified the brand of sweat and hard work that went into winning a Claiming Crown event. With Al's Dearly Bred, narrow winner of the Emerald, Robertson and owner John Castro joined jockey Seth Martinez to celebrate calmly afterward in the winner's circle.

While Al's Dearly Bred captured the most hard-fought race of the series, the other Crown winners won with aplomb. The Maccabee won by a series-record 9 1/4 lengths, French Teacher by 6 1/2, Sassy Hound by 4 3/4, and Sing Because by 3 1/2.

The closest finishes resulted when Secret Squall and Al's Dearly Bred rallied from well behind to win the Iron Horse and Emerald, respectively. Interestingly, they are the first two Crown winners with Minnesota connections.

Castro, owner of Al's Dearly Bred, is from Eagan. Secret Squall is owned by Chris West of Burnsville and John Mentz of Eagan and is trained by Pat Cuccurullo, a three-time Canterbury training champion now based primarily in Chicago. Two years ago, Cuccurullo ran the most starters, six, in the inaugural Crown at Canterbury, only to come away winless.

Secret Squall, at 10-1, and Al's Dearly Bred, at 5-1, were the longest-priced winners in the series. Only two favorites won (The Maccabee and Sing Because), leading to a pick six worth $6,631 for each winning $2 ticket.

Buoyed by a guaranteed minimum jackpot of $50,000, the pick six handle was $62,325.

While Canterbury clearly has taken great pride as host of the first three Claiming Crowns, the event is scheduled to be run elsewhere next year. Philadelphia Park and Lone Star Park are the front-runners, according to Dan Metzger, president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, which co-sponsors the Claiming Crown with the national Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

Wherever it is run, men such as Richard Englander and Scott Lake, whose horses again were prominent throughout the series, surely will make it a point to show up again. Both took obvious pleasure in their roles as marquee figures, and both were generous with their time in granting interviews to the media.

"This is the greatest," Englander said after his Sing Because won the Jewel. "The people who run claiming horses all across the country don't get the recognition, but it shouldn't be that way. They're the ones who make the game go day after day."