07/12/2006 12:00AM

Rue Des Reves back for title defense

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SHAKOPEE, Minn. - The plain Jane bay mare standing in Barn C-11 on the Canterbury Park backstretch Wednesday morning, a fan blowing up at her from the shed row, could have been any old anonymous horse. But the halter laid next to her stall read "Rue des Reves," meaning this was the defending champion in the Lady Canterbury Handicap.

Rue des Reves is back at Canterbury for the second straight season, having shipped in as she did last year from trainer Dwight Viator's base at Louisiana Downs. She was one of nine horses entered Wednesday in the $100,000 Lady Canterbury, part of Saturday's Claiming Crown card, and the richest open stakes race of the Canterbury Park meet.

Rue des Reves came into last year's race, which she won by a nose, on a long winning streak. This year, she merely has won her most recent start, a high-end allowance race on June 15 at Lone Star.

Lone Star also was the site of the last race for Stretching, who may be favored to beat Rue des Reves in the one-mile grass race. Stretching was to travel here by van on Thursday from Arlington, sharing a ride with another Mike Stidham-trained horse, Sandburr, one of the favorites for the Claiming Crown Jewel. Stretching, imported from France last season, won three in a row before finishing a solid third last out in the Grade 3 WinStar Distaff at Lone Star.

The other mare who figures to attract plenty of betting support is Aimer, a consistent allowance-class horse who has been competing at Churchill Downs.

Claiming Crown's future is iffy

The seventh Claiming Crown came somewhat close to being the final Claiming Crown, but despite troubling declines in out-of-state handle on the 2005 races, Canterbury officials decided to push on.

"After last meet, we had to decide if there was a future for this event," said Randy Sampson, president of Canterbury, "but in revisiting it, we decided that it was our signature event, and worth continuing."

Introduced in 1999, the Claiming Crown was something more than a local gimmick, offering the chance for claimers around the country to run for real money, and taking the concept of the starter allowance race to new heights. Interest from horsemen and bettors developed steadily, and the 2004 Claiming Crown produced a new top in handle. But out-of-state handle on the 2005 races plummeted; there were few full fields, and an undercurrent of national disinterest.

"We weren't sure why that was," Sampson said. "There were shorter fields, we weren't on TVG, but it still didn't figure."

There are some tweaks for 2006, but nothing major. Post time has been pushed back to 4 p.m. to avoid the simulcast glut in the center of Saturday afternoon. Conditions in some of the races have been made more liberal, and distances have been changed, including shortening the $150,000 Jewel to 1 1/16 miles. But Saturday's races, especially the six-horse Jewel, didn't overflow with entries, and Sampson conceded that without a significant boost over last season's business, the Claiming Crown's future might again look uncertain.

According to Sampson, Canterbury on the whole is in the midst of a season much like 2005's, with similar on-track attendance and wagering figures, though out-of-state handle has increased.

Ontrack attendance, especially on weekdays, remains unusually high for this era, with 4,000 or 5,000 fans regularly attending the races, according to Sampson. Claiming Crown Day is typically among the biggest draws of the season - for as long as the day continues to exist.

Al's Dearly Bred, five years later

Five summers ago, a horse named Al's Dearly Bred won the Claiming Crown Emerald. No need to Google the aging turf horse to discover his whereabouts - he's right there in the 2006 edition of the same race.

Al's Dearly Bred, 9, makes his 49th career start in the Emerald, but only his second for trainer Marvin Johnson, who owns Al's Dearly Bred in partnership with Larry Cronin. Trained for most of his career by Hugh Robertson, Al's Dearly Bred was a stakes horse in 2002 and 2003, but began a gradual slide in 2004, and by the spring of 2005 was racing in $25,000 claimers. After a seventh-place finish in April 2005, Al's Dearly Bred wasn't seen for more than a year.

Wasn't seen in a race, that is. Johnson, who has 10 wins this Canterbury meet, said he saw the horse training for a comeback, and when Robertson's son, Mac, put Al's Dearly Bred in a June 11 claiming race here, Johnson took him for $16,000.

"You always hope you can keep them going for what you pay when you claim them," Johnson said. In fact, Al's Dearly Bred ran for a $30,000 tag in a race with a third-level allowance option on July 2, and won by a neck. The race was impressive enough that he's been installed as the 4-1 favorite in the $100,000 Emerald.

Johnson said he's claimed horses as old as Al's Dearly Bred in the past, and doesn't shy away from a horse with miles on him. "I'd always rather take an old one with problems behind them than a young one with problems in front of them," he said.