I make no secret of the fact that I love horse racing at all levels. I have favourite horses who run in Grade I stakes, $4,000 claimers, and everywhere in between. Though much of the ink in horse racing is spilled over the graded stakes, the road to the Kentucky Derby, the road to the Breeders’ Cup, the big racing days…for one weekend,
I had no idea that the Claiming Crown even existed until last year, and I found the concept fascinating. You mean…there’s a day of stakes races only eligible to horses who have run in the claiming ranks? It sounded awesome, and it was awesome. When I watched last year, I wasn’t all that familiar with most of the runners (other than Ribo Bobo, of course!), but the concept had me hooked.
This year, I am a bit more familiar with the sport, and with the horses. There is a slew of horses coming in from the Chicago circuit. I’m particularly excited about Gimmeadrink after his long and winding road from $4,000 races at Suffolk to being beaten all of two lengths in the Washington Park Handicap (GIII) this summer…with a streak of nine wins in ten starts along the way. Though he’s one of the runners with whom I am most familiar, he sheds light on both reasons why the Claiming Crown is one of my favourite racing events of the year.
First, there is the obvious: it is a day to recognize horses who run in the races that keep horse racing going day in and day out. Most races are claiming races, and most racehorses are claimers. Still, a neck-and-neck finish in a random Thursday’s Hawthorne 9th is just as exciting to watch as a neck-and-neck finish in a big stakes race. The horses are still running their hearts out, and people are hoping just as ardently that one horse or another lays their nose on that line first. The runners deserve our attention and our adoration, above and beyond those few minutes when we are stressing out about the third leg of the pick four.
They deserve this day in and day out…but I am grateful that there is a Big Race Day event that draws such wide attention to the role that claiming horses play, and the fact that claiming horses can run thrilling races.
Secondly, this weekend’s races also shine beams of light on a host of stories. I will be handicapping several of the races for Picks and Ponderings, and my goal will be to figure out how the race is likely to unfold, and who seems best suited to win. Still, the other side of my brain will have a lot to find from a fan perspective. That part of me will be wondering exactly what flipped the switch. How did a horse go from racing for a $7,500 tag two, six, twelve, or eighteen months ago into a stakes race…into a position where their trainer is so confident in them to point them toward this showcase? Was it a change in surface or distance? Was it a new trainer being a better fit? The Claiming Crown is a perfect example of why horse racing is a game of a million stories.
Time to start learning this year’s.