07/15/2004 12:00AM

Stage Player may be heaviest chalk


SHAKOPEE, Minn. - Jeff Mullins earned a living at smaller racetracks in the far West before hitting it big in Southern California in recent years. So, heading back to Canterbury Park for the Claiming Crown for the second straight year, Mullins finds himself in a comfort zone.

"It's a nice place," Mullins said Thursday while en route to Minnesota. "With the Claiming Crown, they've got a great deal going up there, a super deal. For these claiming horses, a lot of owners don't get the opportunity to run for the little extra money they've got in the Claiming Crown. I'm looking forward to getting back there."

Last year, Mullins was represented by Mega Gift, who checked in third as the 3-2 favorite in the $125,000 Claiming Crown Emerald. This year, Mullins once again has the favorite in the Emerald in Stage Player, a California-bred who has won 5 of 9 starts since being claimed for $25,000 in November.

Despite running in a full field of 14, the largest of the Claiming Crown program, Stage Player might be the heaviest favorite of the day. Since Mullins placed the 5-year-old gelding on turf in March, Stage Player has been especially sharp, posting Beyer Speed Figures of 94, 94, 97, and 98. Moreover, with Tio Lupe appearing to be his only Emerald rival with effective early speed, Stage Player should not have any excuses after breaking from post 2 under jockey Tyler Baze.

"Tyler's really good on these kind of horses," said Mullins, whose stable has earned more than $3.6 million this year. "My horse has good speed, but he doesn't have to have the lead. That other horse probably will have to clear us and go on to have any chance, and that should let Tyler just kind of sit in behind before we move."

The 1 1/16-mile Emerald, to be run as race 8 under $20,000 starter conditions, is the lone Claiming Crown grass race. It precedes the anchor race, the Jewel, as the penultimate race of the series. In the preceding races:

* $100,000 Rapid Transit (race 7, $16,000 starter): This 6 1/2-furlong race typifies the melting-pot spirit of the Claiming Crown: The nine starters made their respective last starts at seven different racetracks.

Two solid contenders, Waki American and Four Checker, represent one of the two overlaps in that category, with both having last raced at Hollywood Park. Waki American, co-owned by Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Paul Lo Duca, probably will take more play and may even be a lukewarm favorite, having most recently earned a 98 Beyer Speed Figure when capturing a $32,000 claiming sprint for trainer Doug O'Neill.

Other plausible contenders in what seems to be a highly competitive race are Sure You Can (in from Belmont), Icy Tobin (Canterbury), Quote Me Later (Churchill Downs), Satan's Code (Colonial Downs), and Heroic Sight (Philadelphia Park).

* $75,000 Glass Slipper (race 6, $12,500 starter): In what might be the toughest race for handicappers to decipher, Sweep in Philly has been the most consistent recent performer among the field of eight, but several others have flashed the kind of brilliance that could mean victory with a reprise on Saturday. For instance, Banished Lover was sensational in a four-race blitz at Mountaineer Park earlier this year; Moving Fever looked great in winning back-to-back sprints before a disappointing last race; and I Love Lisa reeled off six wins from nine starts before running fourth in her latest.

The 6 1/2-furlong Glass Slipper, the lone Claiming Crown race restricted to fillies and mares, drew a field of eight.

* $50,000 Express (race 5, $7,500 starter): Trainer Pat Byrne initially thought he was taking a big edge with Cherokee Prospect, who enters in good form in Kentucky. But after finding out that Cherokee Prospect would be running against the John Zimmerman-trained duo of Devil's Con and Longonot in the six-furlong Express, Byrne wasn't quite so enthusiastic. Both Zimmerman runners have been very sharp in recent appearances back East.

"For a $7,500 starter, it sure is salty, although it's really hard to say how Delaware Park form will match up against what my horse has been doing," said Byrne.

Cherokee Prospect, he added, "has been doing great. He blew out really well [Wednesday at Churchill] and shipped fine. I know he's going to have to run hard to win, but I still think if he runs his best race back he'll be tough."

Chisholm, Halo Hunter, and Jimmy Jones are other logical contenders in a field of nine.

* $50,000 Iron Horse (race 4, $5,000 starter): The traditional leadoff event should get Churchill shipper Rough Draft as a slight favorite over another old pro, Strike Reality, in a field of 11. Rough Draft, with Rafael Bejarano named to ride for trainer Merrill Scherer, has won six of his last seven starts.