08/05/2007 11:00PM

Maker, Mena, and Ellis Park all Claiming Crown winners


HENDERSON, Ky. - With an event record of $4.9 million in all-sources handle on a 12-race program, Ellis Park on Saturday staged a successful ninth running of the Claiming Crown despite miserably hot weather.

"I think we lost maybe one to two thousand people because of the weather advisory that was issued for the day," said Ellis Park owner Ron Geary. "All in all, I'm very excited by the response we got for our first Claiming Crown."

The all-sources wagering record - aided no doubt by the fact that both HRTV and TVG and their affiliated account-wagering services took the races - easily surpassed the Claiming Crown record of $3.6 million, set three years ago at Canterbury Park in Minnesota.

Conversely, the ontrack attendance of 6,611 wasn't even half of the Claiming Crown record of 13,922, set in 2000. Ontrack handle Saturday on the 12 Ellis races was $650,960, well short of the 2000 record of $999,719.

The all-sources handle was the third-highest in Ellis history, following the $5.3 million handled on a Saturday in August 2004, and the $5 million bet on a Wednesday last August, when several East Coast tracks, including Saratoga and Monmouth Park, canceled because of excessive heat.

Hosted in seven of the eight previous years by Canterbury, the Claiming Crown was dominated this year by Kentucky horses - most notably by horses trained by Mike Maker and ridden by Miguel Mena.

Maker and Mena teamed to win the richest race in the seven-race series, the $144,000 Claiming Crown Jewel, with Miami Sunrise, as well as two other races: the $97,000 Emerald with One Eyed Joker, and the $47,000 Iron Horse with Bargainwiththedevil.

Maker's three victories tied the record set in 2000 by Scott Lake for most winners by a trainer on a Claiming Crown card, while Mena's three wins is a record for a Claiming Crown jockey. Passing the finish line aboard Miami Sunrise, Mena, a 20-year-old Peruvian, gave an enthusiastic wave of his whip, the kind of wave normally used only for meaningful victories.

Mena wasn't the only one having a good time. A trembling John Witte exclaimed that Saturday was his "greatest day in racing" after watching a horse he owns in partnership, Unplugged, get up in the final stride to win the $96,000 Tiara. Witte, a Delaware resident who is a partner in J.D. Racing Stable, watched excitedly as Unplugged, ridden by Corey Lanerie and based at Delaware Park with trainer Paul McClelland, nipped Heathersdaddysbaby on the wire.

"Here we are, in my old Kentucky home," Witte said moments afterward. "This is the best."

Witte's exuberance was shared to varying degrees by a crowd that mostly filled the grandstand, clubhouse, and adjacent areas at Ellis, which was hosting the richest day in its 85-year history. Despite temperatures nearing 100 degrees, and a heat index even higher, fans mostly seemed oblivious to the oppressive weather.

Geary, the first-year owner of Ellis, worked up quite a sweat attired in a blue blazer by hustling all over the place, making sure things went smoothly. By virtually all accounts, they did, as the long mutuels and concessions lines in evidence for the July 11 meet opener were mostly non-existent Saturday.

"I am totally ecstatic," said Geary. "We've been working on this for a year. It was great racing, with photo finishes, competitive races, longshots winning, pretty much everything you could ask for. Everywhere I went, from the Sky Theatre to the picnic area to the clubhouse, everybody said they were having a ball."

As host track, Ellis partnered with several other entities that sponsor the Claiming Crown - and, like Geary, the leaders of those other organizations were prominent throughout the day. Making winner's circle appearances were Remi Bellocq of the national Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association; Marty Maline of the Kentucky division of the HBPA; and Dan Metzger of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.

It has not yet been determined whether the Claiming Crown will return to Ellis. When the event was inaugurated in 1999, one of the goals was to move it around to different tracks as the Breeders' Cup is done, but it evolved into a virtual mainstay at Canterbury, with only Philadelphia Park (in 2002) and Ellis having served as alternative sites.

For 2008, Canterbury wants it back, Canterbury president Randy Sampson reiterated Saturday.

"While we haven't as yet had any conversations with the horsemen or Claiming Crown Ltd., it is certainly our intent to pursue hosting the event next year," said Sampson.

After that, however, it would seem logical the event could move again, whether it's back to Ellis or even a different track. Geary said that given the response of horsemen and fans Saturday, he would be inclined to host the event again.

Besides the Maker and Mena triple, two other Kentucky horses were winners in the Claiming Crown. One was the heaviest favorite on the program, Golden Hare, who returned $3.40 after leading most of the way in the $47,500 Express under Lanerie. Golden Hare, owned by Scott Blasi Racing Stables and trained by Steve Asmussen, has won a remarkable 12 of 13 races since being claimed last August for $3,500.

The other Kentucky-based winner, Neverbeendancin', narrowly edged favored Lookinforthesecret in a torrid stretch duel in the $72,000 Rapid Transit.

The only horses to ship from out of state to win were Adore You, who invaded from Prairie Meadows for a 49-1 upset in the $72,000 Glass Slipper, and Unplugged in the Tiara.

All Claiming Crown races are governed by starter-allowance conditions, with horses having raced for a claiming tag within the last year. The Jewel winner, Miami Sunrise, was claimed for $10,000 in April at Tampa Bay Downs for the J and J Investments of James Michael.

Although the series claims an overall value of $600,000, that number would be attained only if every race attracted the 14-horse maximum. For every horse short of 14, 1opercent of the purse reverts to the Claiming Crown. The total value of the series on Saturday came to $575,500.

Four of the 72 scheduled starters in the seven races were scratched, yielding 68 starters, tied for most in event history, although in some years only six Claiming Crown races were run. The highest average field size was in 2001, when 68 horses ran in six races for an 11.3 average.