by JIM WELLS
It’s almost embarrassing the way horsemen fawn and gush over the facilities and treatment (it’s called Minnesota nice) that await them on their visits to Canterbury Park. It leaves the locals here feeling a bit like the debutantes at a ball whose parents can’t stop bragging about them to old acquaintances and business colleagues.
Occasionally, you want to say. “Knock it off. You’re giving us all red faces.”
It’s not only horsemen who do the fawning. An example: “This track is the best kept secret in America,” commented Damon Thayer at the Claiming Crown breakfast draw on Wednesday. Damon runs Thayer Communications & Consulting LLC in Georgetown, Ky.
Scott Lake, the trainer with a record eight Claiming Crown victories, has similar sentiments and never fails to express them on his visits to Minnesota.
Lake, currently second in the nation in number of wins, has competed in all but one of nine previous Claiming Crowns. He missed last year’s at Ellis Park. “I was sick that it wasn’t at Canterbury,” Lake said. “I would have been there if it was.”
Lake says he would move his stable to Canterbury for the meet each summer if the purses were better. “Every year I think I’d love to have a home here,” he said. “This track surface is phenomenal. There’s a pool here for the horses. The facilities are first rate, and the Sampsons treat the horsemen better than any racetrack management I’ve ever seen.”
But enough with the pats on the back and the at-a-boys. The Claiming Crown is the piece de resistance of the Canterbury meet: seven races with $600,000 in purse money, and the $100,000 Lady Canterbury to boot.
The Claiming Crown originated at Canterbury Park and has introduced Minnesota racing to a number of owners, trainers and jockeys who otherwise would never have shipped their horses to Shakopee, Minnesota. The 2002 Claiming Crown was staged at Philadelphia Park. Last year’s was at Ellis. Otherwise, Canterbury has been home to this event.
Saturday’s event has attracted a smorgasbord of stables from various tracks along the East Coast, in the South, the Midwest, the Southwest and on the West Coast. Among the trainers who shipped in horses are Mike Maker, who won three Claiming Crown races last year; Lake, Tom Amoss, Ken McPeek, Mike Mitchell and Steve Asmussen, currently the nation’s leader in number of wins.
Lake has three entries this year, including the favorite in the $150,000 Jewel _ Coyoteshighestcall, a six-year-old horse with 64 starts, the most of the 64 horses entered in the seven races. He also leads the field in earnings with $422,682. Fearless Anthony, trained by Chris Hartman and entered in the Rapid Transit, has the most wins _ 19. Chickster, trained by Justin Evans and owned by SEJ Stable of Detroit Lakes, Minn., has nine wins this year, the most of any horse in North America.
Lake claimed Coytoeshighestcall the middle of last summer for $16,000, lost him at Presque Isle Downs for $18,000 and took him back for $25,000.
Evans is going head-to-head with three-time defending champ Mac Robertson for the training title at Canterbury this meet and has three horses for SEJ in the Claiming Crown: Global Trader in the Iron Horse, morning line favorite Eagle Storm in the Rapid Transit and Chickster in the Express.
“We’re all pumped for sure,” said Evans. “This is a big day and we’re all really excited.”
Evans had two horses in the 2006 Claiming Crown at Canterbury, Gos Bodin, his first horse for SEJ, and Runintheriver.
“Runintheriver was three in front heading for home and got caught in the last four jumps. We went from complete elation to depression just like that,” he recalled. “Gos Bodin ran big in the Iron Horse but got snapped by that horse of Lake’s, Distinct Vision.”
Evans had a comment for Lake when he saw him the other day. “I told him to stay out of my way this time, we’ve got some horses,” Evans said, jokingly.
Lake annually says that his trip to Canterbury for the Claiming Crown is a working vacation, something he truly anticipates.
“Yeah, I watched him gallop those horses of his the other day,” Evans said. “They look like steam engines. Lake walks those horses to the barns, hand washes them, and works like crazy. I said that if he works that hard and is supposed to be on vacation he makes the rest of us poor suckers look bad.”
SEJ Stable is owned by Curt and Sharon Johnson, the two-time champion owners in Shakopee who are headed to a third straight honor.
“We’re excited,” Curt Johnson said. “We hope we can win one of the three races but we’ll take two of three if we can get it. We’re up against some pretty tough customers, but that’s what we want. We want to find out what our horses are made of, especially Chickster.”
Locally-based trainer Bobbie Grissom is starting her first horse in the Claiming Crown. She’ll saddle Chip Hunter, an 8-1 morning line pick, in the Emerald for owner Bob Lindgren of Prior Lake.
She hopes that Chip Hunter runs as well as Lindgren played poker on Friday. He won the Claiming Crown poker tournament and the $500 first prize.
Lindgren revealed his winning strategy after consuming a couple of adult beverages at the Claiming Crown cocktail party Friday night.
Basically, he won with a bluff. “I had the worst hand, a 2-6,” he said. He bet the bundle in front of him and was called by the guy across from him. “The other guy didn’t have anything either,” Lindgren said. “Then, the dealer turned up a 6 and I won with a pair of sixes.”
The cocktail party was a chance for trainers and owners to socialize and do a bit of reminiscing before Saturday’s card.
Trainer Bernell Rhone had only one horse on Friday night’s card, in the sixth race, and was asked if that was deliberate.
“Oh, yeah, so I could do some pre-race (socializing),” he said.
Rhone will saddle Couple Whiles in the Tiara and Onotheregostokyo in the Emerald.
Two years ago he saddled Seneca Summer in the Rapid Transit. “He ran the best race he ever ran for me,’ Rhone said, “a 100 Beyer and got beat.”
So it goes in the Claiming Crown, when horses arrive from racetracks in numerous racing jurisdictions, and sometimes, as Rhone discovered, kick dirt in the eye of the locals, despite their talent or Minnesota nice.
But Minnesotans are not to be trifled with. What the visitors don’t know about their hospitable hosts is that they sometimes make fun of them after they leave.