Claiming Crown Races On; Still Hopes for Growth

Organizers hope to spark some new interest in this year's Claiming Crown, a $600,000 series of seven starter allowance stakes set for July 15 at Canterbury Park.

The purses and distances of several races have been altered. There's a new post time for the program. And the Shakopee, Minn., racetrack is offering an on-track Claiming Crown handicapping contest with a guaranteed first prize of $50,000 in cash.

The event, first held in 1999, is a partnership between Canterbury, the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. Canterbury and the Minnesota HBPA, by virtue of putting up most of the purse money, have been the glue that has held the Claiming Crown together.

Canterbury has hosted six of the first seven editions; the only other track to host the event was Philadelphia Park in 2002.

Fostering growth in nominations and handle has been a challenge. When the list of nominees was released June 6, there were 244 horses on the list. Though there's a chance a few more will supplement by June 30, this year's number is only one more than the total number of nominees for the inaugural Crown.

Total nominations have run from 243 to 296 in the first seven years; last year, the figure was 271. Though the actual number of horses entered in each Claiming Crown race is more important, the more nominees, the more money for purses. When the Crown was launched, organizers were hoping to eventually reach 1,000 nominees a year so the host track and horsemen's group didn't have to provide most of the purse money.

"We're down about 10% from last year," said Nat Wess, director of racing at Canterbury and the Claiming Crown coordinator. "I don't have a real good reason for that. We're missing those graded stakes winners we had last year, but by the same token we have a lot of evenly matched horses. My guess is nobody is going to be scared about coming to run."

(Late nominations are 5% of the purse. But for a $100,000 race, for example, the cost would be $3,000, because entry and starting fees are waived.)

The Claiming Crown remains the biggest day of the year for Canterbury. This year, the track has placed the $100,000 Lady Canterbury Breeders' Cup Stakes on the program. First post, usually in the early afternoon, will be 4 p.m. CDT (2 p.m. on the West Coast and 5 p.m. on the East Coast).

Wess said officials hope the later post time will help the export signal, which also has been a disappointment. It topped out at $2.3 million in 2004, and last year fell to $1.3 million.

"We'll be in all the (outlets) we had last year, and hopefully some others," Wess said. "Supposedly, the HBPAs are pushing hard for tracks in their areas to carry it. It would be a bitter disappointment if our simulcast numbers weren't up. We've got the 'bridge' period on the East Coast, and California at a more peak time of day.

"On-track business remains to be seen. The gamble is that it's a bastardized post time, but we're racing at 4 p.m. July 4 and July 8, so after those two programs, we'll have a better idea of what to expect."

During the National HBPA winter convention earlier this year, Minnesota HBPA president Tom Metzen acknowledged difficulty in getting other wagering outlets to take the Claiming Crown signal.

"We've had pretty good success in getting horses, but one place we fall down--and I'm not sure whose fault it is--is the simulcast," Metzen said. "We're not getting the best support in the world from the tracks. If we get better coverage through the simulcast, it's a home run for everybody."

There have been cases when tracks in major markets haven't taken the Canterbury signal that day, or if they did, it was hard to find on television monitors, Wess said. The situation has left some people scratching their heads, because the event traditionally has had national appeal with starters from California to Pennsylvania.

With one exception--2001, when the Minneapolis-St. Paul area was hit with temperatures in the mid-90s and unbearable humidity--Claiming Crown at Canterbury has lured at least 10,000 patrons. The record of 13,922 was set in 2000, when the National Thoroughbred Racing Association held a Mystery Mutuel Voucher promotion.

This year, the NTRA has joined Canterbury in offering the handicapping contest on Claiming Crown day. Along with the $50,000 first prize, the top three finishers will qualify for the $750,000 Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Contest. The contest requires a $1,000 fee that will go toward prize money, and a $1,000 live bankroll that will be used for wagers on the seven Claiming Crown races and the Lady Canterbury.

This year's Claiming Crown races, run under starter allowance conditions (horses that have started for a specific claiming price), are as follows:

The $50,000 Iron Horse ($7,500 or less) for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/16 miles

The $50,000 Express ($7,500 or less) for 3-year-olds and up at six furlongs

The $75,000 Glass Slipper ($16,000 or less) for fillies and mares, 3-year-olds and up, at six furlongs

The $75,000 Rapid Transit ($16,000 or less) for 3-year-olds and up, at six furlongs

The $100,000 Tiara ($25,000 or less) for fillies and mares, 3-year-olds and up, at 1 1/16 miles on the turf

The $100,000 Emerald ($25,000 or less) for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/16 miles on the turf

The $150,000 Jewel ($35,000 or less) for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/16 miles

In race-related changes, the Iron Horse went from starter allowance $5,000 to $7,500; the Express distance is now six furlongs rather than 6 1/2 furlongs; the Glass Slipper is now starter allowance $16,000 instead of $12,500; both the Glass Slipper and Rapid Transit went from 6 1/2 furlongs last year to six furlongs this year; the purse for the Tiara was raised $25,000 from last year; and the Jewel, which has lured graded stakes horses in the past, went from starter allowance $25,000 to $35,000.

Last year's Claiming Crown races had sponsors, but that information has not yet been released.