Frosted Grace, winning a $62,500 claiming race on Jan. 27 at Oaklawn Park (Robert Yates photo)

Many of the trainers and owners running horses in Saturday’s eight Claiming Crown races already won a critical competition before the starting gate even opens at the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots: They got the horse at the claim box.

With shrinking foal crops and enhanced purses in areas such as Kentucky, New York and Arkansas, there has never been more demand for a competitive claiming horse, the backbone of American racing. The Claiming Crown was created 25 years ago by the National Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association (NHBPA) and the Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders of America (TOBA) to spotlight those horses with their own big-money day.

The 25th Claiming Crown — this year worth a total of $1 million and staged with support from the Louisiana HBPA — clearly has encouraged some owners to seek out horses with this day in mind.

“A lot of guys gear up for this day,” said trainer Robertino Diodoro, whose seven Claiming Crown entrants include three contenders for the $200,000 Jewel in Flying P Stable’s Saqeel and Frosted Grace and Ken Ramsey’s King’s Ovation. “Two of my bigger guys, Flying P and Ken Ramsey, have had success at the Claiming Crown and just love it. Jason Provenzano has mentioned it to me at least once a week for four months about having Frosted Grace for the Claiming Crown. Flying P last winter would say, ‘How about this horse (to claim)? He’d be eligible for the Claiming Crown next year.’ It was nine or 11 months away, but it shows you how excited some of the owners are and how much pride they take in running in it.”

“It’s a big day and very important to a lot of owners. The blue-collar horses get to be the spotlight of the day and run for good money. You have to have blue-collar horses in this game, for sure, for spectators, owners and trainers. They’re a big part of our game.”

Claiming a horse is one of the quickest and most effective ways to get new owners into the game – or to bring lapsed owners back. Claim a horse, and you could see it run back in your silks in a matter of weeks.

The concept is relatively straightforward: Claiming races have, as a race condition, a set price tag on the horses to encourage running horses of approximately the same value/ability against each other. If an owner (usually represented by his or her trainer) decides they want one of the horses in the field, they fill out a form – and make sure they have the money to pay for it in their horsemen’s account — before the race goes off.

The original owner gets any purse money the horse accrues in the race. But afterward, horses that had valid claims submitted walk back to a new barn. If multiple people drop a claim on the same horse, there’s a “shake” – akin to drawing straws – to see who wins.

For example, owner Paul Parker and trainer/co-owner Jeff Hiles needed to win a 13-way shake to get Time for Trouble, the favorite in Saturday’s $75,000 Ready’s Rocket Express, for $8,000 on June 18, 2021 at Churchill Downs. He was one of five horses claimed out of the race. Time for Trouble has not run in another race since where he could be claimed, that includes winning last year’s Ready’s Rocket Express at Churchill Downs.

Starter-allowance races such as the Claiming Crown are restricted to horses that have started for a certain claiming price or cheaper in a specified time frame. But there is no claiming involved, making starter races attractive to those who don’t want to risk losing their horse.

The complexities of the claiming game increase when horses’ eligibility for starter races expires. If they’re put in another claiming race to make them re-eligible for starter competition, there’s a good chance they’ll be claimed. On the other hand, horsemen need to run in spots where they can make money to stay in business. Running a horse over its head repeatedly just to hang on to it doesn’t do the owner, trainer or the horse any good.

So it’s one thing to claim a horse with the Claiming Crown in mind and another to still have it come Claiming Crown day.

Mike Maker, the all-time leading Claiming Crown trainer with 21 victories, and his fellow horsemen Diodoro, Chris Hartman and Joe Sharp are all over Saturday’s Claiming Crown entries. Maker and Diodoro entered seven apiece, Sharp six and Hartman four.

Then there are all the horses racing Saturday that those guys used to train. Take Invaluable — and a lot of people did just that.

Now 6, Invaluable won last year’s Claiming Crown Glass Slipper for Maker but will start this year for Sharp, who claimed her two races ago. The Claiming Crown was only Invaluable’s second start for Maker, who took the mare off Diodoro for $32,000 at Saratoga in a race where all four horses were claimed. The prior winter, Diodoro had taken Invaluable off Hartman for $30,000 at Oaklawn, a race in which five of eight starters changed hands.

“That one hurts,” Diodoro said of losing Invaluable, the 2022 National HBPA Claiming Horse of the Year. “I loved that mare. I didn’t want to lose her. She’s as honest as they come. We could have tried to hold her out for the Claiming Crown. But you get to Saratoga, the owners want to win, the purses are big. You can’t just ‘protect’ these horses. You’ve got to run them where they can win – and there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to lose them at the claim box.”

The home run is getting a horse that improves to where it can run well in allowance and stakes races. That’s the case with Frosted Grace, a $32,000 claim a year ago who has made $382,860 for Flying P in 2023, including winning Lone Star Park’s Grade 3 Steve Sexton Mile.

Three other Diodoro-trained horses will make their first start for the barn Saturday, having been claimed specifically for the Claiming Crown. One, Pens Street in the Glass Slipper, has been claimed in three of her last four races.

The $75,000 Iron Horse Kent Stirling Memorial will be the second start for Diodoro with $40,000 claim On a Spree, who changed hands six times in his prior seven starts, including spending one race apiece for Hartman and Sharp.

“The claiming game gives everyone a chance,” said Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National HBPA. “There’s often not a lot that separates blue blood from blue collar. Horses every day outrun their pedigrees. High price tags bring high expectations, but sometimes those horses simply aren’t good enough for top-level company. That doesn’t mean they aren’t still good, productive horses. And sometimes horses’ form goes off to where they’re put in a claiming race to get them back on track. Like Emerald favorite Therapist.”

That New York-bred gelding, an eight-time stakes-winner at the time, was claimed for $25,000 and then for $50,000 in his next start by Maker in January. Therapist now has won three races for new owner Michael Dubb, including the Grade 1 United Nations.

Hamelback noted that Glass Slipper favorite Samarita was a $1,000 yearling who has won her past six races and that Claiming Crown Jewel favorite Money Supply cost $400,000 as a yearling but clearly didn’t fit into his original owner’s program geared toward the classic races.

“The same mare, Tokyo Time, produced $3 million-earner Olympiad a year after she foaled Iron Horse contender Mau Mau,” Hamelback said. “He lost his first six starts, was put in a $30,000 claiming race, won that day and was claimed and has since raced successfully at his level for several different trainers. There are a lot more Mau Maus than Olympiads. They are good racehorses at their level and bring a lot of joy to their owners and barns. We celebrate them all with the Claiming Crown.”

lllinois horsemen well-represented in Claiming Crown
Trainer Jim Watkins, president of the Illinois HBPA, will make his Claiming Crown debut with Dennis Pohl’s Faithful Ruler in the $100,000 Rapid Transit Starter for horses that have raced for $16,000 or less in 2022-2023. 

“The Claiming Crown is really a neat deal,” said Watkins, who grew up around horses and owned racehorses for about 30 years before retiring as a school teacher and taking up training full time. “It’s claiming horses’ day in the sun.”

Watkins considers Faithful Ruler – a son of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and whom he claimed in May 2022 for $30,000 – a very live play at 10-1 and coming off an allowance victory at Horseshoe Indianapolis.

Faithful Ruler is one of a handful of Claiming Crown entrants based at FanDuel Sportsbook and Racing (the track near St. Louis formerly known as Fairmount Park). Jose Rodriguez owns and trains Samarita, the favorite in the $100,000 Glass Slipper, and also has Richiesonaroll in the Rapid Transit.

Heather Irion’s homebred Indicia could be tough if the $150,000 Tiara comes off the turf, which seems quite likely after considerable rain Friday and more expected. Indicia enters the race off an off-the-turf allowance victory at Horseshoe Indy and is 3-for-7 over wet tracks.

“It’s certainly not by accident,” Watkins said of the southern Illinois track’s representation in Saturday’s races. “There are some good horsemen at FanDuel, some very solid trainers. The purses aren’t great but the competition is. Illinois horses had a really good meet at Keeneland. I just won a race at Churchill Downs with a horse that had been getting beat at Hawthorne (in Chicago) and FanDuel.”

Hartman has option of Rapid Transit or Jewel for All West
Trainer Chris Hartman has All West entered in both the $100,000 Rapid Transit Starter and the $200,000 Jewel. A $10,000 claim 15 months ago, All West has won at both the Rapid Transit’s six-furlong distance and the Jewel’s 1 1/8 miles for owners JD Thoroughbreds and Joey Keith Davis. He comes into either race very fresh, having been off six months before finishing fourth in a Nov. 4 starter-allowance race at Churchill Downs.“I’m not exactly sure which race to run him,” Hartman said. “I’m leaning toward the mile and an eighth, especially if it’s wet…. I think that horse would be more competitive on a wet track going a mile and an eighth. He can run on anything, that horse. He’s just a good horse, tries hard every time he runs. He’s a little difficult to train, but outside of that, he’s awesome.”

Hartman also is sending out Xylophone and My Good Fortune in the $100,000 Glass Slipper and Enchanted Nile in the $150,000 Tiara scheduled for turf. Enchanted Nile has more experience and wins on dirt (8-for-22) than turf (a second in four starts), including going 2-for-4 on off tracks. So Hartman handicapped the weather by entering in the Tiara.

“It’s supposed to rain, so if there comes a big storm (and the Tiara comes off the turf) I think we’ll be in a little better position with her on the wet,” he said. “That was sort of the game plan.”