07/10/2006 11:00PM

King of the claimers chases record

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Beth Rutzebeck / Canterbury Park
Scott Lake's 276 horses stabled at seven different tracks include Distinct Vision, who runs Saturday at Canterbury.

Monday morning in a parking lot at Canterbury Park, Scott Lake's rental car incessantly chimed a warning as Lake juggled two, sometimes three cell phone calls, at some point calling out to a passerby.

Chaos? No, a typical moment in the life of America's most prolific Thoroughbred horse trainer. Lake lives just down the road from Philadelphia Park, but his horses, 276 of them at the moment, one of the largest training operations ever assembled, are scattered across seven different racetracks on the Eastern seaboard.

"Believe me, I know it's insane," said Lake.

Halfway through 2006, Lake is on pace to win more races in a year than any trainer ever has - by a lot. Steve Asmussen, who just began serving a six-month suspension, won 555 in 2004, eclipsing Jack Van Berg's single-season mark, but through Monday, Lake had 331 victories, an average of 1.72 winners per day. Maintaining that clip would give Lake 628 victories by year's end, and though his pace figures to slow, he still should catch Asmussen.

"Around May, I started telling myself we were on the pace to crush that record," Lake said. "I thought we could tighten up and really pay attention. If we average one and one-half a day we should break it."

But Lake is in Shakopee, Minn., trying to break a losing streak: The last three years, he's 0 for 11 in Canterbury's Claiming Crown, an event he once dominated. Lake has four horses for the seven Claiming Crown races this Saturday, the annual highlight of the Canterbury season, which this year is bolstered by the $100,000 Lady Canterbury Breeders' Cup. First post for the program has been pushed to 4 p.m. Central, a prescient move, since temperatures are forecast to approach 100 degrees Saturday.

Lake was about that hot early in the Claiming Crown's seven-year history, going 6 for 14 during the event's first four years, including a three-win day in 2000, when he captured the day's biggest race, the Jewel, with B Flat Major.

"This year, we're coming in with stronger horses," he said.

Lake's operation grew fantastically through the late 1990's and early 2000's, cresting in 2003, when he won 458 races. The next year - Asmussen's record-breaking year - Lake won "only" 379. The stress and grind of the work had started wearing on him.

"I got down to about 130 horses, and then I got hungry again," said Lake.

The stable grew back to 200, and when the trainer John Zimmerman died this past winter, Lake found himself with an unexpected influx of still more stock. "We were really good friends, so I picked up a lot of his horses," Lake said.

Now, there are strings at seven different tracks: 44 at Philly Park, 36 at Belmont, 56 at Delaware, 54 at Penn National, 30 at Pimlico and Laurel, and 26 at Charles Town. Lake is the leading trainer at Delaware and Charles Town, is one off the lead at Philly Park, and already has won titles at Laurel and Pimlico. His home is centrally located, and he drives from string to string throughout the week. Lake and his wife, Jennifer, have children aged 5 months and 3 years (Lake has a 7-year-old from a previous relationship), and Lake said he still is finding time for his family.

"I go home as soon as I've been at the barn, at noon, hang with the kids, watch the races at home," he said. "If there's something that really needs to be looked at for claiming, then I'll call."

Monday, from his car at Canterbury, Lake listened as Hugo Padilla, his Delaware assistant, gave a race call of a conditioned claiming race in which Lake had a horse. Partway through, Padilla said, "He's spitting the bit," and Lake, frustrated, didn't want to hear more. "Call me for the next one," he said.

A meaningless Monday claimer? Hardly. Lake finds the energy to run this massive business because he grooves on winning - any race, anywhere. "I'm hugely competitive," he said.

When Lake first broke out, the usual racetrack rumors began flying: cheating, drugging.

"You learn to live with that and deal with it," he said. "For a while, it was a big joke, then it got really tiresome, and now I don't worry about it. I tell them jump in the car with me, travel around with me, and tell me if you can do what I'm doing."

At 41, Lake still is fully enmeshed in the claiming game. By far the most he has had an owner spend on a horse is the $175,000 that purchased Thunderello, who once finished second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. "We're 90 percent a claiming barn," Lake said.

And if Canterbury's Claiming Crown means to transcend the humdrum essence of claiming, so does Lake's relentless pursuit of wins.

"I keep telling my wife and my help, when this happens it'll slow down, or when this happens we'll slow down," Lake said. "Now, it's when we get this record, we'll slow down. But she and my help say it's all bull."