By Lynne Snierson
Five weeks ago, the sport’s flashy, international equine stars were spotlighted in the $28 million Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. On Saturday the blue-collar horses, those who are the foundation for the day-to-day racing programs at racetracks all across the country from Suffolk Downs to Emerald Downs, get their day in the sun as they vie for championships of their own in the $1.1 million Claiming Crown at Gulfstream Park.
The Claiming Crown, which was the brainchild of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association (HBPA) and the Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Association (TOBA) as a partnership in 1999, was designed to be a Breeders’ Cup of sorts for those hard-knocking claiming horses. The event, which has experienced exponential growth over the past five years in participation and handle, is open to any horse which has competed in the claiming ranks, regardless of where he or she was foaled or at which racetracks that horse competed.
This year’s slate of nine races for horses in different divisions is being held at Gulfstream Park for the eighth consecutive year and is officially termed Claiming Crown XXI. The use of Roman numerals, just as in the NFL’s Super Bowl, is not coincidental.
“It’s extremely gratifying to see the Claiming Crown grow into such a major event since its inception in 1999,” said TOBA President Dan Metzger. “We look forward each year to the Claiming Crown and the great hospitality at Gulfstream Park. Once again this year, fans will see competitive racing and great performances by our human and equine athletes. We’re looking forward to a great weekend.”
This year 261 horses were nominated to the nine races, and they include dual Grade 1 winner and disqualified first-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby Maximum Security, who once ran for a $16,000 tag, and multiple graded stakes winner and Kentucky Derby starter Tax.
Although Max and Tax won’t be in the fields because the former is competing in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on the same day and the latter was the runner-up in the Grade 3 Discovery in New York on Nov. 30, there is plenty of other talent to attract the interest of the fans and the bettors.
There are also some interesting subplots to add to the intrigue of the races.
The $200,000 Jewel Stakes, which is the featured 10th race and is for horses 3 and older going 1 1/8 on the main track, could be called the Servis Family Invitational. Brothers Jason and John, and John’s son, Tyler, will all send out horses, and this marks the first time that all three trainers have competed against each other in the same race.
Jason Servis, who saddles Maximum Security in the Cigar Mile in hopes of wrapping up honors for the colt as champion 3-year-old male with a win in New York, has the Chilean-bred Leitone well-spotted in the Jewel.
Leitone, who was a Grade 1 winner in his native land, was haltered for the bargain basement price of $12,500 last June at Belmont Park once Servis prevailed in what he said was a shake with six or seven other trainers hoping to claim the 5-year-old son of Dunkirk. Now owned by Ara Aprahamian, he has won twice in four tries since and has been installed as the 2-1 morning line favorite under Jose Lezcano.
Leitone will face stiff competition from Forest Fire, trained by John Servis, and Degrom, whom Tyler Servis conditions. Forest Fire, to be ridden by Paco Lopez, is an impressive winner of three straight races, capped by a score in the Maryland Millions Classic last time out. Degrom, who was taken for $20,000 at Parx in July and has tactical speed, will be partnered with Tyler Gaffalione and looks to be in his best form.
Still, it would be foolhardy to overlook any horse coming out of the barn of Jorge Navarro, who ended Todd Pletcher’s 15-year reign as leading trainer at Gulfstream’s Championship Meet last year. Navarro won three races on the 2018 Claiming Crown card, including the Jewel with Aztec Sense and that horse went on to be named both the Claiming Horse of the Year and Pennsylvania’s Horse of the Year for 2018.
In the 2019 Jewel, Navarro has entered Holiday Bonus and Ekhtibaar, whom he took last time out for $25,000 at Saratoga and has since put through a pattern of excellent works which include a 5-fulong bullet in 1:00.3 recorded at Palm Meadows on Dec. 1.
In the other eight Claiming Crown races there are plenty of accomplished horses, and Shekky Shabbaz is the overwhelming favorite in the Canterbury Stakes at 5 furlongs on the lawn. The Jason Servis-trainee captured the Lucky Coin at Saratoga this past meet, then was second in the Belmont Park Turf Sprint and last out was an exciting third in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.
As appealing as the 2019 Claiming Crown promises to be, it is only the appetizer for big things to come at Gulfstream Park, which is undergoing an extensive $20 million modernization project, over the next few months.
The Championship Meet kicked off last weekend, and next month the track will be the scene for the world-class, $16 million Pegasus World Cup Championship Invitational series. The Grade 1, $9 million Pegasus World Cup and the Grade 1, $7 million Pegasus World Cup Turf co-headline a Jan. 25 program with nine stakes, including four additional graded stakes.
The Road to the Triple Crown always winds through South Florida, and the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 28 serves as a major Kentucky Derby prep race and has throughout its history produced the winners of 59 Triple Crown races. Expect to witness many of the country’s top sophomore contenders in Gulfstream’s well-regarded series for sophomores, which includes the Grade 3 Holy Bull and the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth as Florida Derby preps.
“Our guests will see top horses, horsemen and jockeys each race day over the next four months,” Mike Lakow, Gulfstream’s vice president of racing, said. “Historically, the Championship Meet has also been the place to catch the top 3-year-olds in the country prepare for the Florida Derby and Triple Crown, and many of the top classic contenders will be in South Florida this winter. With 98 stakes over four months, and with major events like the Pegasus World Cup, Florida Derby, Fountain of Youth, Holy Bull, and Eclipse Awards ceremony, this Championship Meet promises to be memorable.”
Gulfstream’s fan-friendly renovation project includes the installation of a new infield tote board measuring 100 feet by 30 feet boasting a high-density pixel LED screen; an enhanced sound system on the apron and grandstand areas; additional LED screens and televisions throughout the facility; and a new open-air Dining Terrace on the second floor overlooking the racetrack featuring luxury boxes with private TVs and as a lounge section.