On Track with Johnny D: ‘Tag’ Along for ‘Gulf Opening

If you’ve got a talented sophomore and designs on Triple Crown events, Gulfstream Park is the place to winter. Overall, Florida Derby starters have won 59 Triple Crown races, including 44 Kentucky Derbies. Gulfstream Park’s also the place to be if you’ve got a handicap horse that can bark with the big dogs–January 26 on dirt in the $9 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational, or over a $1 million, newly-renovated course in the $7 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational.

Saturday, the 2018-19 Gulfstream Park Championship Season begins by highlighting equines at the opposite end of the racing spectrum. Claiming horses fill nine races worth $1.1 million in purses for a rich day in the sun in the 20th edition of the Claiming Crown.

While 3-year-olds are the industry’s glamour boys, and older runners grab post-Triple Crown headlines and fat purses, claiming horses are the backbone of the game. That’s fact. They fill the vast majority of racing cards daily nationwide. Unfortunately, they won’t ever perform on network television. Only hard-core horseplayers are interested. No Randy Moss/Jerry Bailey telistrator will outline any of their winning trips. Forget Donna Brothers and Kenny Rice with pre-race trainer interviews. They won’t sell. No one’s listening. When it comes to claiming races even flamboyant fashionista Johnny Weir’s closet is bare.

Why? Because claiming horses are considered the sport’s lowest class. Bottom of the barrel. Washed up. In the ‘Sport of Kings’ they’re serfs. Or worse. Outcasts, platers, nags. Minor leaguers. No one ever breeds or buys a Thoroughbred with dreams that someday, if heaven smiles, the horse will ‘run for a tag.’

The old saw about ‘keeping yourself in the best possible company and your horse in the worst’ has claiming races in mind. The best hop is a drop—for a tag, down the ladder.

When a horse is entered in a claiming race it is eligible to be purchased for whatever price is assigned to the race. Paperwork is submitted before the start and, if everything is in order, immediately after the race the horse has a new home. If more than one ‘slip’ is submitted for a particular animal, a ‘shake’ ensues, and numbered pills are drawn from a bottle to split ties. Misspelling a horse’s name on a claim slip invalidates the transaction and at some tracks a post-race vet inspection also can void a claim.

At its heart, the claiming game really is a gamble. Kind of like eBay, where you’re willing to buy something someone else doesn’t want. Only there’s no haggling at the claim box, unless a buyer is willing to wait a few weeks in hope of another shot at a discounted price.

Like car mechanics, some horse trainers are better at what they do than others. A claimed horse can be improved upon. Claiming Crown is a gathering for such success stories. Reclamation projects. Adoptions that worked. Several of Saturday’s trainers have made careers out of fixing flat tires, rebuilding carburetors, changing spark plugs. Mike Maker, Claiming Crown’s all-time leading trainer with 16 wins; Jason Servis, starting major players in three of four turf races; and Jorge Navarro, saddling 15 horses in six of the nine races, ought to account for a majority of Saturday’s winners.

What’s funny about Saturday’s Claiming Crown is that none of the entered runners actually can be claimed. The event really should be called the ‘Former or Future Claiming Crown,’ but that doesn’t have the same ring. Saturday’s races really are Starter Stakes, restricted to horses that have been offered for a certain price within a certain timeframe—since January 1, 2017 in all cases, except for the Express and Iron Horse, a sprint and route, respectively, restricted to starters for $8,000 or less lifetime.

There are no season-ending Eclipse Awards at stake Saturday, but maybe there should be. Something like Claiming Horse of the Year. If such an award were on the line, perhaps Aztec Sense, a 5-year-old in the $200k Jewel finale, would be in the running. He was claimed by Joseph E. Besecker and trainer Jorge Navarro August 7, 2017 for $12,500 out of a non-winners of three at Parx. He won that afternoon and raced just twice more in ‘17—he won a first-level October allowance race also at Parx and then finished fourth in the Claiming Crown Rapid Transit last December. He hasn’t lost since. He’s won seven in a row and 10 of his last 18. Unbeaten this year, he’s banked nearly $300k in ‘18. Not bad for a $12,500 investment.

Like many of its participants, the Claiming Crown has had several former ‘owners.’ Launched in 1999 at Canterbury Park, by Drew Couto, former president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and Scott Savin, formerly with the National HBPA. The event also has been hosted by Philadelphia Park, Ellis Park, Fair Grounds and Gulfstream, as an annual opening-day event for the past six years.

Total Claiming Crown handle has surpassed $10 million each of the past four years, topped by a record $11.925 million in 2017.That level of mutuel support suggests horseplayers find wagering on this diverse collection of runners both familiar and sufficiently challenging. First post for Saturday’s 11-race program is 11:50 am and there are 149 total runners entered (13.5 per race).

There’s also an interesting Conquer the Crown Handicapping Challenge available at Gulfstream and online via Xpressbet. Entry costs $3k—a $1k entry fee with a $2k bankroll. Permitted wagers include Win, Place, Show, Exacta, Trifecta and Daily Double. Prizes include Pegasus World Cup Betting Championship and National Horseplayers Championship seats, as well as cash.

Saturday, they’re off and running at Gulfstream Park. Why not ‘tag’ along?

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: ‘Tag’ Along for ‘Gulf Opening

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