03/17/2009 11:00PM

Most popular mare at the claim box


ARCADIA, Calif. - The recent tempest in a spit cup over claiming rules in California - apparently resolved now except for a stray lawsuit or two - could have been avoided if the sport's impresarios had long ago taken a more visionary approach to the welfare of both the horse and the game itself and begun weaning themselves from their dependency on claiming races.

Such a world is seen as impractical, and that is probably true. Despite the public relations emphasis on multi-stakes programs and big events, claiming races overwhelmingly dominate the American racing landscape, as evidenced by the Friday programs at Santa Anita (six of eight), Gulfstream Park (nine of nine) and Aqueduct (seven of nine), three members of what should be the racetrack major leagues.

The claiming business has been justified as a way to promote the participation of a type of owner who likes constant action. For racing secretaries, the various claiming levels provide a simplified template for arranging the daily product. The state loves the sales tax generated by claims, and even the media tags along, creating folk heroes of horses who "escape" the tainted ranks of claiming fodder.

At the same time, the risk of losing a horse at every turn can discourage potential investors who prefer to bring their runners along at sensible levels of development. Claiming also encourages owners and trainers - at least those so inclined - to take veterinary shortcuts, since the horse might not be theirs long enough to deal with the consequences. At the end of their careers, claimers often become orphans of the system, since no one in particular acknowledges responsibility, least of all the last guy in line.

Heaven forbid American decision makers should take a serious look at the British system, in which every horse is assigned a universal rating and then matched in the lower and middle ranks, where American claimers would roam. A horse who runs too good for his rating is raised accordingly and must play with a tougher bunch. Horses who appear to go honestly off form are re-evaluated and allowed to enter lower rating groups. Whatever happens, they usually go home to the same stalls.

The 6-year-old Canadian-bred mare No Ka Oi is a poster child of the California claiming game, and she will be on display once again on Friday at Santa Anita Park. Grandstand admission is free on Fridays, but don't dawdle, because No Ka Oi will be among the five thoroughly tested older fillies and mares going postward in the first race, at 6 1/2 furlongs on the main track, for tags of $45,000 and $50,000.

No Ka Oi means "the best" in Hawaiian. In her case, she is certainly the most popular. In a career of 43 starts, dating back to her days as a 2-year-old stakes winner in her native British Columbia, the chestnut No Ka Oi has changed hands nine times, winning seven times along the way and about a quarter of a million bucks.

For the past year, No Ka Oi has played the heroine in a three-cornered romance among Southern California trainers Jack Carava, Steve Knapp, and Julio Canani. Carava claimed her out of a second-place finish on Feb. 22, 2008, for $32,000 and promptly won back-to-back races, at $32,000. Canani took her for that price, jumped her to $40,000 and won. Carava took her back that day, ran her for $50,000, finished a close third, and lost her right back to Canani, who ran her a month later for $50,000, finished second, and lost her to Knapp.

No Ka Oi was 0 for 5 with Knapp, who eventually lost her back to Canani for $32,000. Two races later, she was back in the Knapp barn (it is now December 2008), ran twice, and was claimed on Feb. 4 for $25,000 by her old pal Carava.

"She's a neat old mare, with a reputation for being sound," said Carava, who has won 15 races at the current Santa Anita meet. "That would explain why she's been claimed so often. Trainers go for a known commodity like her. When she was in for $25,000, even though she hadn't won for awhile I thought she was worth it."

She was, at least Carava felt that way after he stepped her back up to $32,000 and watched her finish a strong second on the grass. Carava originally intended to run No Ka Oi in Friday's seventh race, a turf sprint for $40,000 fillies and mares, but when the main track event was cobbled together, he tossed her in there despite the higher tag.

"I just figured I'd rather run in a five-horse field at that level than against a full field for forty," Carava reasoned, which is why he wins at 20 percent. "Anyway, she's been great to have around the barn again. If she can just keep her nerves under control when she gets to the track, I think she'll run pretty good."

It is a strange journey these claimers take, most of them laboring far beneath the radar, and rarely missed when they're gone. No Ka Oi's first race was a mad 3 1/2-furlong dash around a turn at the Hastings Park bullring on May 23, 2005, and now, after nearly four years of generating parimutuel handle, she is taking her bows at one of the grandest tracks in the land. Win or lose on Friday, she deserves a hand.