07/13/2005 12:00AM

Lake is quite comfortable as big fish in a small pond


SHAKOPEE, Minn. - In the six years since the was first run at Canterbury Park, Scott Lake has become a veritable big-timer in North American racing, habitually ranking among the winningest trainers while plying his trade at major-league tracks such as Belmont Park and Gulfstream Park.

But Lake still gets a huge kick out of coming to Canterbury a few days early, if only to escape the daily grind of overseeing his stable back home. As the leading trainer in Claiming Crown history with six wins - remarkably, no other trainer has won more than one Claiming Crown race - Lake said Wednesday that he is "very much" in his element at a smaller venue such as Canterbury.

"You kidding?" said Lake. "I love it here. I grew up in spots like this, at Penn National and other little tracks. I look forward to coming here every year."

Once again, Lake will be a main player when the seven-race, $650,000 Claiming Crown is renewed Saturday. A total of 62 horses have been entered, with the richest race, the $150,000 Jewel, drawing a field of six, led by graded stakes winners Lord of the Game, Desert Boom, and Habaneros.

Lake, the only trainer to participate in the Claiming Crown every year, said he almost didn't come this year. He finally decided to run The Student, one of the horses to beat in the Rapid Transit, and "since we were coming, we also decided to bring along" Sacsahuaman for the Iron Horse.

The Claiming Crown is establishing footholds in virtually every corner of North American racing. Horses are here from a wide range of circuits, including northern and Southern California, New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Chicago.

"We are ecstatic that awareness of the Claiming Crown continues to grow every year among horsemen throughout North America," said track publicist Kevin Gorg.

Four of the seven races drew just seven or fewer starters, but the other three drew 10 or more. The deepest race appears to be the Emerald, a 1 1/16-mile turf race for which the morning-line favorite, Mr. Mabee, is an inordinately high 4-1 in a field of 12.

The Claiming Crown races are run under starter-allowance conditions, with eligibility open to horses that have started for claiming prices ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 within the last year. Besides the Jewel, the other races, with the corresponding number of scheduled starters, are the $125,000 Emerald (12), $100,000 Rapid Transit (7), $100,000 Tiara (7), $75,000 Glass Slipper (10), $50,000 Express (7), and $50,000 Iron Horse (12).

Two former Claiming Crown champions are back this year: Landler, winner of the 2003 Express, and Superman Can, winner of the 2004 Iron Horse.

An online handicapping contest will be held on Saturday's entire 11-race card at Canterbury, with the top three finishers earning expense-paid berths in the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Bally's in Las Vegas in January. To register, or for more information, go to ntra.com.

Live television coverage of the Claiming Crown will be provided for the first time by HRTV. First post Saturday is 1:30 p.m. Central, with the Claiming Crown set as races 3 to 9. The weather forecast for Saturday calls for sunny skies and a high temperature of 92.