05/15/2002 12:00AM

No Crown, but plenty of claimers

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SHAKOPEE, Minn. - Canterbury Park, coming off what was perhaps its most successful season since the racetrack was purchased by its current ownership in 1994, opens for its 16th season of live racing Friday evening.

The 62-day meeting is expected to offer full fields and the mid-level claimers that have become the staple of Canterbury's racing program. But track officials admit that it will be hard to match last year's handle and attendance without the Claiming Crown, the meeting's biggest day of racing for the last three years.

Canterbury Park will take a one-year hiatus from hosting the Claiming Crown, which will be held at Philadelphia Park this year. After having been the home to the first three runnings of the Claiming Crown, Canterbury will host it again in 2003.

Canterbury will offer 29 stakes for Thoroughbreds and 13 stakes for Quarter Horses. The highlight of the meet will be the June 9 running of the $100,000 Canterbury Park Breeders' Cup Derby at one mile on the turf, a race that has attracted such notables as Maysville Slew, Fan Club's Mister, and Del Mar Show.

Canterbury Park's financial health has been bolstered by the continuing success of its card club, which went from 38 to 50 tables in the past year. Track officials also cite an increase in its simulcasting business after a dog track in nearby Hudson, Wis., closed in August.

Increases in revenue are expected to result in a higher purse structure in the seasons ahead, and track president Randy Sampson said talks with the horsemen regarding purses are ongoing.

"Our focus has been on creating a sustainable level in our stakes program, while maintaining the level we have established in our overnight purse structure," Sampson said.

Canterbury's track crew has replaced roughly a third of the track's cushion on the main track with new organic material. Sampson pointed out that the track surface has been monitored by a local testing firm over the years and that the current strip matches specifications from previous years.

For the benefit of its live racing fans, Canterbury has placed a Jumbotron screen in the infield, one of several improvements to its infield area. During the off-season, the track made a number of cosmetic changes to the interior of the plant, including new carpeting and fixtures in the clubhouse.