12/08/2003 12:00AM

As always, Gill pursuing new claims

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Michael Gill, the nation's leading owner in victories, has claimed 52 horses in Southern California since late October and has no plans to slow down, according to trainer Nick Canani.

Through Sunday, Gill had spent $1,864,000 acquiring horses at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. The claiming prices have ranged from $10,000 on seven occasions to $100,000 last Friday for Thunder Bullet, a sprint stakes winner in September.

Overall, he has claimed 20 for $50,000 or more.

Some of their recent claims are beginning to reappear. In Wednesday's sixth race at Hollywood Park, Canani has two starters in a starter allowance for 2-year-old fillies with a $20,000 purse - Mental Floss and Missice. Both were claimed from the third race at Santa Anita on Nov. 6. Missice (claimed for $28,000) finished third, and Mental Floss ($32,000) finished fourth.

Canani said Gill, who is based on the East Coast, continues to scour the claiming divisions for prospects.

"I don't know when we'll have the team we want," Canani said. "We haven't had a chance to run many because we've claimed so many in a short period of time. In the next two weeks, you'll see more run back."

Through Sunday, Canani, who trains exclusively for Gill, had started 15 horses at the month-old Hollywood Park meeting and won three races. He had five other horses finish second or third. The figures leave him near his goal of winning with 20 percent of his starters and finishing in the top three with half of the runners.

"If we can hit at 20 and 50, I'll be happy," Canani said. "If we can hit at 30 and 50, I'll be even happier."

Two of the horses they claimed subsequently were claimed in their first starts for Canani and Gill. Gill has shipped 10 of the claimed horses to the East Coast but has also shipped Eastern horses to California.

"We've brought in five or six horses," Canani said. "We're looking at bringing in up to 25."

Gill's brash claiming tactics have been a source of controversy in the last year. He has been the subject of scrutiny in California in recent weeks from rival horsemen, many of whom have been frustrated at losing prospects.

Others have lost random shakes to Gill and Canani when more than one claim is submitted. Gill and Canani often submits two claims - one under Gill's name and one with Canani as a co-owner.

Canani defended the practice, saying many California trainers submit the maximum of two claims, using different owners on each slip.

"Every trainer here does it," he said. "If we don't, we're at a disadvantage. There could be a six-way shake and it's three trainers. Seventy-five percent of the horses we've claimed, we've had to shake for."

Canani said three of the horses he has claimed are prospects for the Sunshine Millions for California-breds and Florida-breds at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita on Jan. 24. Thunder Bullet, the winner of the Aprisa Handicap at Fairplex Park in September, could start in the $500,000 Turf or the $300,000 Sprint at Gulfstream Park. Lusty Latin, who finished 15th in the 2002 Kentucky Derby, could start in the Turf or the $1 million Classic at Santa Anita. Runnin' on Nitro, claimed for $70,000 on Nov. 19, could start in the Sprint.

Canani insists that Gill is committed to racing in California after the Hollywood Park meeting ends Dec. 21.

"Are we going to get up and leave? No," he said. "Are we going to slow down claiming? No. Will we always be buying and selling? Yes. People will have a chance to claim them if they want them."

Action This Day works for return

Action This Day, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita on Oct. 25, is being pointed for the $150,000 Santa Catalina Stakes over 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita on Jan. 17, trainer Richard Mandella said.

Action This Day worked a half-mile in 51.60 seconds Sunday at Santa Anita. Owned by B. Wayne Hughes, Action This Day has won two of three starts and $817,200.

Mandella gave Action This Day a three-week break following the Breeders' Cup.

"We want to have a full tank at the right time," Mandella said, referring to the spring classics. "He's more mature all the time."

Two of Mandella's other Breeders' Cup winners, Halfbridled (Juvenile Fillies) and Pleasantly Perfect (Classic), will breeze later this week. Their next races have not been determined, Mandella said.

Stevens, Buddy Gil team up again

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who has not ridden since Oct. 25, plans to return for opening day at Santa Anita on Dec. 26. One of his first rides will be Buddy Gil in the $250,000 Malibu Stakes over seven furlongs.

Stevens rode Buddy Gil Sunday in a six-furlong workout in 1:12.40 at Santa Anita, the fastest recorded time of the distance.

Stevens rode Buddy Gil to victory in the Santa Anita Derby last April and to a sixth in the Kentucky Derby.

In early November, Stevens said he was taking a break from riding, citing lingering neck pain from an August spill at Arlington Park. On Monday, he said his neck has improved.

"It's really coming along," he said. "I've let it rest and I've been taking it easy on himself."

Stevens began exercising horses late last week. He said he was pleased with Buddy Gil's workout.

"We caught kind of an off-track. It was the first time I've gotten him kind of tired and that was a good thing," he said.

Trained by Jeff Mullins, Buddy Gil has not started since the Kentucky Derby, but remains on schedule for the Grade 1 Malibu.

"They both looked pretty fit to me," Mullins said of Buddy Gil and Stevens.

Saint Afleet stakes bound

Saint Afleet earned a stakes start in January after winning a $38,000 optional claimer by 2 1/2 lengths in Sunday's second race.

Trained by Craig Dollase, Saint Afleet finished six furlongs in a sharp 1:09.49. Ridden by Alex Solis, Saint Afleet stalked a quick pace and rallied wide to beat pacesetter Firstship, the longest shot in the field of five at 21-1.

"He showed some real talent," Dollase said.

Dollase said the $100,000 San Miguel Stakes over six furlongs at Santa Anita on Jan. 11 or the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash at Santa Anita on Jan. 24 are possibilities.

Summer Wind Dancer scratches

Summer Wind Dancer, who has placed in four stakes this year, was scratched from Sunday's Grade 2 Bayakoa Handicap in favor of this Sunday's Cat's Cradle Handicap for California-bred fillies and mares over 7 1/2 furlongs. The field will also include Brite Betty, Tucked Away, and Valentine Dancer.

Saturday's On Trust Handicap for state-breds over 7 1/2 furlongs will feature a strong field - Calkins Road, Coconut Mango, Excess Summer, Green Team, Hot Market, and Kedington.

Grey Memo, 6, is making his fourth appearance in the On Trust. He won the race in 2000, finished fourth in 2001, and was second to Hot Market last year. The On Trust will be his 50th career start.

* Jockeys Kent Desormeaux, Victor Espinoza, David Flores, and Corey Nakatani - four of the top 10 riders at the current Hollywood Park meeting - are riding in Hong Kong next weekend. Desormeaux will ride at Hollywood Park on Wednesday and Thursday, but the other riders will be gone through the week.