The Championship Meet at Gulfstream Park gets underway on Saturday with a day full of salty horses and lucrative betting opportunities: the Claiming Crown.
Claiming races form the backbone of the schedule at racetracks everywhere. The principle is simple: a licensed owner and trainer can buy any horse in a claiming race for the price defined in the race conditions. Claiming tags function to sort horses by skill, as anyone who thinks a horse would be competitive against tougher company can claim the horse and try them for flashier purses.
The Claiming Crown began in 1999 as an event to celebrate and bring wider attention to claiming horses. They are run under similar conditions as starter allowances. In addition to prescribing a surface and distance, the conditions for each race define a claiming price at or under which a horse had to have started within a defined period of time. However, the purses differ a bit from garden-variety starter allowances. Each Claiming Crown race offers a six-figure purse, making these races attractive not only to current claiming level horses, but also to onetime claimers who have graduated to stakes company but remain eligible for the conditions.
Quite fittingly for something that hails the lunchpail horses, the Claiming Crown started in the Midwest. Canterbury Park hosted the first edition in 1999, and it called Shakopee home for much of its early history. It occasionally moved to other tracks: Parx, Ellis, and the Fair Grounds. In 2012 it moved to Gulfstream Park; this year's edition will be there for the fifth straight year.
Much of this year's Claiming Crown remains the same: in addition to remaining in Hallandale Beach, all nine races from last year's schedule return. Though the race day features the same slate of races, the Claiming Crown did expand its schedule of prep races. Last year, Laurel held a Claiming Crown Preview Day, in which winners of nine prep races would each earn an automatic berth into the corresponding Claiming Crown races. This year Laurel once again hosted a full slate of nine preps last month. Kentucky Downs also held a pair on September 11, which Chicago-based horses swept. 2016 Black Tie Affair Handicap winner CAMMACK, a Chris Block trainee, won a berth in the Emerald. Larry Rivelli charge DADDY'S BOO earned her way into the Claiming Crown Tiara. Both horses entered their respective races.
Here, we preview the Claiming Crown Emerald and Tiara in full. In a chart below, we will also have selections for all nine of the races. If you have any questions about the logic behind other picks, please leave us a comment, or send us a tweet at @picksponderings.
Nikki's Sandcastle wins the 2012 Claiming Crown Emerald. Nikki's Sandcastle would go on to win the Hanshin Cup (GIII) at Arlington in 2014.
We haven't forgotten the local stakes race, either. Saturday's card at Hawthorne features the Pat Whitworth Illinois Debutante, and we have a full preview.
All selections in turf races are for turf only. Rail is planned to be set at 72 feet. Post times are approximate, as Gulfstream tends to run late.
Saturday, December 3 - Gulfstream Park
Race 9: Claiming Crown Tiara, three-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, starters for a claiming price of $25,000 or less since January 1, 2015, one and one sixteenth miles on the turf,post time 4:03pm EDT
The Claiming Crown Tiara drew an overflow field of 14 lawnmowing fillies and mares (plus two also-eligible entries) to vie for a $125,000 purse. Thanks to these grassy races, we all know there are three constants in life: death, taxes, and Mike Maker first off the claim. And, here, Mike Maker brings a horse first off the claim who was long one of the most consistent horses on the Chicago circuit: BE PLAYFUL. Maker claimed this mare for $40,000 at Churchill last month off of her original connections, owner Team Block and trainer Chris Block. It was her first start since June, and she finished a solid second in that open race. This start has her second off that layoff, and a step forward makes her a serious contender here. The pace should also unfold well enough for BE PLAYFUL -- there will likely be other speed to challenge morning line favourite DADDY'S BOO early, but if there is not, she is versatile enough to sit close to a slow pace and acquit herself well. The one concern is her disappointing eighth in the Tiara last year, her only start over the Gulfstream course. But, she gets a different rider today (Julien Leparoux), and that Mike Maker magic should have BE PLAYFUL ready to make better account of herself here.
MARABEA comes into the Tiara off of a win in the Laurel Park prep. Red-hot trainer Lacey Gaudet claimed MARABEA two back off of Graham Motion, laid her off for two months, and then put her into the Claiming Crown prep. There she closed well to score by a length and a quarter over SEEKING TREASURE. Gaudet's runners do well second off the lay. A repeat of that last effort makes MARABEA competitive here; a step forward makes her even more of a threat at what will be a square price. Though this will be MARABEA's first time at Gulfstream, she has a solid enough line going a mile and a sixteenth on grass (5 2-1-1). On class, she has enough back form in straight allowance company to not look overmatched here. And, on pace, MARABEA has the same attractive versatility as BE PLAYFUL: she can stalk close if need be, or rally from well out of it instead.
DADDY'S BOO will offer a short price, but merits defensive use. Most of her victories have been the gate-to-wire variety. But, she showed another dimension when she won the Kentucky Downs prep for this race. There, she sat just off the pace early, then later drew off to win easily. That bit of versatility may help DADDY'S BOO here: STORMIN CHARLOTTE is one-way speed, and others like KASUGA and ROYAL JEWELY have also shown sharp early pace. Should it become a game of chicken, E. T. Baird probably takes this field from gate to wire on DADDY'S BOO. But, he has options. He also has a horse with form over the distance and course. DADDY'S BOO has six wins and a second in eight tries going a mile and a sixteenth on grass, and the grey mare won a starter stakes at Gulfstream earlier this year.
#10 BE PLAYFUL (9/2)
#7 MARABEA (12/1)
#12 DADDY'S BOO (3/1)
Longshot: #4 ROYAL JEWELY (12/1) has been on the shelf since October, but has run well off of freshenings before. She also has a pair of bullet drills at Tampa leading into this start. Though she has speed, she has also shown some guts on the front end -- as evidenced by her last turf start, an N3X victory at Monmouth in July. On a contested pace for so much of the way, she won by daylight. That also came the last time Paco Lopez rode ROYAL JEWELY; Lopez returns here. Alternately, she can also rally from just off the pace, as she showed in a pair of wins at Tampa earlier this year. Though ROYAL JEWELY's form is hit or miss at a mile and a sixteenth, her hits are good enough to make waves here, and the price should be long enough to bet she fires.
Race 11: Claiming Crown Emerald, three-year-olds and up, starters for a claiming price of $25,000 or less since January 1, 2015, one and one sixteenth miles on the turf, post time 5:05pm EDT
This year's Claiming Crown Emerald drew an overflow field -- fourteen, plus two also eligible -- to compete for a $125,000 purse. Though the race CLASS AND CASH won last out was not an official Claiming Crown prep, it did serve as the unofficial local prep, and the top three finishers all turn up here. CLASS AND CASH fits well. He loves a mile and a sixteenth on the grass, with three wins and a second in four tries. This races also has her second off a lay for a trainer, Jane Cibelli, who wins at an excellent 28% in that circumstance. A reasonable step forward from that first-off effort give CLASS AND CASH exactly what he needs to this. Though that last-out victory came on the front end, CLASS AND CASH also has no shortage of off-pace form, helpful with as much speed as there is in this race. With rain in the forecast on Thursday and Friday, there also stands to be a bit of cut in the ground, something CLASS AND CASH has handled better than your average Florida horse.
Another horse who can handle a bit of rain leading up to the race is Illinois-bred CAMMACK. He has won six out of eight starts this year, with two over yielding ground. Though he finished fourth last time out, the Emerald is a class drop compared to a stakes-quality allowance at Keeneland. That Keeneland allowance has since been franked, with winner Coalport (a fellow Illinois-bred!) finishing third in the Tropical Turf Handicap (GIII) last weekend. Though CAMMACK has not run since that October 15 allowance, trainer Chris Block excels with runners off those mid-length lays. The distance and pace scenario suit, too. CAMMACK has three wins in six tries over the distance, and has enough versatility to win on the front or from a handful of lengths off. Expect the latter.
RIVIERE DU LOUP disappointed as the favourite in an allowance-optional at Parx last out, but has better form earlier in the year. Two starts back, he was sixth beaten five lengths in the United Nations (GI) -- not the best Grade I of the year, but full of tougher horses than this. Even better is the fact that he is reunited with rider Joe Bravo. Bravo kicked RIVIERE DU LOUP home to two wins and a third in three outings together earlier this year. RIVIERE DU LOUP is a consistent runner over the course and distance, as he has hit the board in both tries at Gulfstream and in five of seven at the distance. His trainer, Jason Servis, also means business when he ships a horse: 30% of his shippers win, and 59% hit the board.
#11 CLASS AND CASH (5/1)
#13 CAMMACK (9/2)
#8 RIVIERE DU LOUP (6/1)
Longshot: What's good for the goose can be good for the gander, and we have a similar jockey angle with this longshot as we did with our last one. #6 INDIAN GUIDE (15/1) reunites with rider Paco Lopez, who sent him home to a pair of wins earlier in the year. Though he has won from on the pace, he typically does his best from a bit off the pace, which should suit the race shape here. His 11-4-0-3 record over the Gulfstream Park grass also inspires confidence. INDIAN GUIDE will have to bring his best to beat this field, but he has run some races that compare with the better horses in this field. And, he comes first off the claim for trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr. -- a 17% winner first off the claim, with a 57% in-the-money rate.
Below are all of Nicolle Neulist's picks for Saturday's Claiming Crown. This will be updated as they finish handicapping the card. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment or tweet us at @picksponderings!