HENDERSON, Ky. -- John Witte ran into the winner's circle trembling. "This is my greatest day in racing," said Witte. "Here we are, in my old Kentucky home. This is the best."
Witte had just watched a horse he owns in partnership, Unplugged, get up in the final stride to win one of the seven Claiming Crown races run amid sweltering conditions at Ellis Park. For the first time in its nine-year history, the Claiming Crown was run in Kentucky, and Witte, a Delaware resident who is a partner in J.D. Racing Stable, was ecstatic to have made the trip.
Unplugged, ridden by Corey Lanerie and based at Delaware Park with trainer Paul McClelland, barely nipped Heathersdaddysbaby in the $96,000 Claiming Crown Tiara, a 1 1/16-mile turf race for fillies and mares. Witte's exuberance was shared to varying degrees by a crowd that mostly filled the grandstand, clubhouse, and adjacent areas at Ellis, which was hosting the richest day in its 85-year history.
Trainer Mike Maker, the former longtime D. Wayne Lukas assistant, was the star of the day when sending sent out three winners in the Claiming Crown series, capped by a 1 3/4-length triumph by Miami Sunrise in the richest race, the $144,000 Claiming Crown Jewel. Owned by the J and J Investments of James Michael, Miami Sunrise returned $13.40 after finishing the 1 1/8-mile Jewel in 1:50.83 over a fast track. All three of Maker's winners were ridden by Miguel Mena.
"Great day," said Maker.
Like all Claiming Crown races, the Jewel was governed by starter-allowance conditions, with horses having raced for a claiming tag within the last year. Maker claimed Miami Sunrise for $10,000 in April at Tampa Bay Downs for J and J.
Ron Geary, the first-year owner of Ellis, was all over the place Saturday, insuring as he could that things went smoothly. By virtually all accounts, they did, as the long mutuels and concessions lines in evidence for the July 11 meet opener were mostly non-existent Saturday.
"I am totally ecstatic," said Geary. "We've been working on this for a year. It was great racing, with photo finishes, competitive races, longshots winning, pretty much everything you could ask for. Everywhere I went, from the Sky Theatre to the picnic area to the clubhouse, everybody said they were having a ball. The heat may have kept a few people from coming out today, but all in all, this is what it's all about."
The official attendance was 6,611, down from the 8,000 that Geary had hoped for. But although ontrack and all-sources handle were not immediately available, going into the 12th and last race, the all-sources figures appeared to be on a par to break both the all-time records for Ellis ($5.3 million) and the Claiming Crown (just over $4 million).
In terms of race winners, there was a definite leaning toward Kentucky-based horses, as they accounted for all but two of the seven races. The only horses to ship from out-of-state to win were Adore You ($100.60), who invaded from Prairie Meadows for a huge upset in the Glass Slipper, and Unplugged ($8.80), the second choice in winning the Tiara.
The second Claiming Crown race was won by the heaviest favorite on the program, Golden Hare, who returned $3.40 after leading most of the way in the $47,000 Express under Corey Lanerie. Golden Hare, owned by Scott Blasi Racing Stables and trained by Steve Asmussen, has won a remarkable 12 of 13 races since being claimed last August for $3,500.
In other Claiming Crown races, Bargainwiththedevil ($6.40) won the $47,000 Iron Horse, Neverbeendancin' ($11.70) narrowly edged favored Lookinforthesecret after a torrid stretch duel in the $72,000 Rapid Transit, and One Eyed Joker ($44.40) snuck through a narrow opening to prevail in a proverbial cavalry charge in the $97,000 Emerald.
Before Miami Sunrise, Maker's two winners were Bargainwiththedevil and One Eyed Joker, both owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey. Maker's three victories tied the record set in 2000 by Scott Lake for most winners on a Claiming Crown card, while Mena's three wins is a record for a Claiming Crown jockey.