07/27/2006 12:00AM

It's all a bit different with claimers


DEL MAR, Calif. - While the rest of the racing world waits in breathless anticipation for the East Coast debut of the $16 million 2-year-old named The Green Monkey, Del Mar fans will be treated on Sunday to an up-close look at a creature almost as rare, and one who bears a far more majestic name.

Pure as Gold, scheduled to run in the $300,000 Bing Crosby Handicap, was claimed out of his most recent start at Hollywood Park for $100,000 by owner Ron Valenta and turned over to trainer Jack Carava. A hundred-grand is not a record for a claim, but all the same, they are few and far between. And now, in a chance to turn a quick profit, Pure as Gold is set to face a field that promises to include such six-furlong sharpshooters as Bordonaro, Carthage, and Tricky Trevor, so good luck to him.

If it is going to happen, the Crosby will need to unfold much as Carava is wishing in his wildest dreams, with the favorites ending up in a line on the lead, scratching at each other through a 43-second half. Known as a patient stalker, Pure as Gold could then come along late and mow them all down.

"At least, that's what I'm hoping for," Carava said. "Otherwise, I think his best races for us will be down the hillside turf course back at Santa Anita. But that's a few months away."

According to Doug O'Neill, who won three races with Pure as Gold going about 6 1/2 furlongs down the Santa Anita hillside course earlier this year, the lack of such events until October was partly to blame for the decision to drop the horse in for a mega-tag. The claim made deserving headlines, since Pure as Gold counted the San Simeon Handicap among his wins for O'Neill, and it's not every day a graded stakes-winning sprinter goes on the block for a mere $100,000.

"It would have been $40,000 or $50,000 if we hadn't been out-shook for him in a couple of earlier races," said Carava, who had been eyeing Pure as Gold for some time.

"I was surprised he was claimed," O'Neill said. "He's a neat little horse, fun to have around."

And around, and around. Pure as Gold lives at the upper end of the revolving door world of in-demand claimers, those horses of steady reliability who seem to produce their form for a variety of stables. When Carava's men bring him over for the Crosby on Sunday, Pure as Gold will be making his 17th start for his fourth different trainer, including Mike Puhich and Mike Mitchell, in addition to O'Neill.

Cherished as it is by a segment of action-hungry horsemen and horseplayers, the claiming segment of the racing game is a double-edged public relations sword that even at its best is badly misunderstood.

Racing lore is replete with entertaining tales of ex-claimers and Cinderellas who develop into marquee stars. Lava Man, the current flavor, has joined such names as John Henry, Budroyale, Seabiscuit, Silver Spoon, and Stymie in the oddball pantheon of top runners risked early in life for a tag.

Beneath the romance supplied by those rare exceptions, claiming is a brass-knuckle game of hardcore poker, complete with bluffs, checks, raises, and blinds, and accompanied by an unfortunate percentage of horses that are, sad to say, all-in. It is no slip of the tongue that some of the best-known claiming practitioners refer to the Thoroughbreds involved as "poker chips" - try running that past a Congressional committee or a more activist mainstream press - with individuals defined more by a narrow range of stepladder dollar amounts than their color, sex, or ancestry.

Both Carava and O'Neill, skilled players, acknowledge a double standard that comes along with high-volume claiming.

"The nature of the game calls for a different veterinary approach for claiming horses who move from barn to barn," Carava said. "You still want to do the best you can for them, but instead of long-term solutions to problems - like turning a horse out and giving him time - you end up with short-term fixes, since chances are you'll be losing the horse."

On Thursday morning at Del Mar, Carava was watching Pure as Gold circle on his tow-ring, looking bright and shiny and alert as a setter on point. His light copper coat is trimmed by a white stocking fore and aft, and an offset half moon of a star between his eyes.

Just then, a nearby stablehand unspooled a length of duct tape to repair a rake handle, and the sound sent alarms banging through Pure as Gold's handsome skull. In a blink, he was up on his hind feet, threatening all kinds of havoc.

"He's been that way," Carava said. "A little fearful. But he's never that way when he trains."

Carava eventually took the shank himself and walked his horse on a tight hold until Pure as Gold was put away for the morning, in a stall receiving a sweet ocean breeze. In an attempt to get in the last word, Pure as Gold attacked the hayrack lying outside his stall before it could be hoisted into place.

"Champion," said one of Carava's grooms.

"Loco," said another.

And who knows? They both might be right.