07/30/2001 11:00PM

They come from all over to vie for Crown

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When the concept of a one-day extravaganza restricted to claiming horses was still on the drawing board a few years ago, it was thought that the Claiming Crown, as it became known, at least would draw full and competitive fields.

And with the Claiming Crown set for its third running on Saturday at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn., this much is apparent: Horseplayers should have exactly the kind of fields they like. About 75 horses were expected to be entered Wednesday in the six-race series, which offers $550,000 in purses.

"These are very deep and contentious fields," said Nat Wess, Canterbury's coordinator of what he calls "a Breeders' Cup-type day for claiming horses."

Wess said that while about one-third of the starters are expected to be based at Canterbury, the balance are being shipped from all over the U.S., including California, New York, Kentucky, Florida, and about a dozen other jurisdictions, including Canada. Sixteen horses arrived Sunday from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, including several owned by Richard Englander and trained by Scott Lake, the leading owner and trainer in wins in North America this year.

Lake, the dominant figure in the first two Claiming Crowns, has six probables this year, four for Englander.

Each Claiming Crown race essentially is run under starter-allowance conditions.

The richest Claiming Crown race, the $150,000 Jewel, is for horses which have started at least once for $25,000 or less since July 31, 2000. Wess said the 1 1/8-mile Jewel, which will be run as the finale in the series, would draw nine or 10 starters, led by Sing Because, Banner Salute, Five Straight, and Barrister.

The $125,000 Emerald, for turf horses with a $20,000 starter restriction, could have Dignitas Dancer as a slight favorite off a sharp series of races at Lone Star Park for trainer Dalls Keen. About 12 are expected.

Eastern invaders Sonofaqueen and Sassy Hound are among the probable choices in a full field of 14 likely for the $100,000 Rapid Transit, which is for sprinters with a $16,000 starter restriction.

A full field of 14 filly-mare sprinters who have raced for $12,500 or less in the last year are what makes up another wide-open race, the $75,000 Glass Slipper.

The first two races of the series are each worth $50,000. Lake has a solid choice in a field of about 10 expected for the six-furlong Express ($7,500 starter) in The MacCabee. But there is no clear-cut choice among the 14 expected for the opener, the 1 1/16-mile Iron Horse ($5,000 starter).

The first two Claiming Crowns were run at Canterbury, too. Sponsored by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and the national Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the event is scheduled to shift next year to another track, although where has not yet been determined. Canterbury is scheduled to host the event in 2003, 2005, and 2007, with other tracks hosting it during alternate years through 2008.

First post Saturday is 1:30 p.m. Although the races will not be shown on a major cable network, a TVG broadcast crew, led by Minnesota natives Matt Carothers and Todd T. Schrupp, will be on-site throughout the day. Also, Canterbury has sold the Claiming Crown program to far more simulcast outlets than on normal days.