01/09/2003 12:00AM

Claiming game may heat to a boil

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - If owner Mike Gill and trainer Mark Shuman continue to claim horses at the incredible pace they have set during the first week of the Gulfstream Park meet, then Peter Walder says he and his fellow claiming trainers have little choice but to begin doing the same.

"If they want to keep running horses for less than they're worth, then I'll be right there to take them," said Walder, one of the more active claiming trainers at Gulfstream Park the last several years. "They're getting away with murder."

Indeed, Gill and Shuman have taken many horsemen aback with their bold style. Through the first five days of the meet, they had claimed 12 horses, not to mention another 20 or so they claimed during the final few weeks of the Tropical-at-Calder meet. At the same time, Gill and Shuman have been running many horses at the same level or lower than what the horses were claimed for.

"We run horses for what they're worth," Shuman said flatly.

Yet Walder and other high-profile claiming trainers, including Allen Iwinski, said Gill and Shuman have gone too far, that they are in the process of dramatically altering the dynamics of the claiming game at Gulfstream.

"I don't know that I've ever seen anything like this," said Walder.

"They single-handedly wrecked some categories at Delaware Park last summer, just wiped them out," said Iwinski. "But that's fine. The difference between them and me is they claim blindly, and I don't. I'll make fewer mistakes in the long run."

Both Iwinski, 50, and Walder, 34, said they have sufficient resources to enter into a full-scale battle with Gill and Shuman.

"If they want to keep playing the game that way, we can do that," said Walder. "I mean, nobody is taking it personally, because we all know how the game is played. But if they're going to keep running $50,000 horses for $35,000, then we'll be there."

Iwinski estimated that Gill and Shuman claimed "maybe 30 horses off me last year, but I didn't claim but one from him because I was on medication" for hepatitis, he said. "Obviously I wasn't on my game, so there wasn't much I could do about it. But now I'm fine, and they've got me paying very close attention."

Shuman said he and Gill are accustomed to rival owners and trainers taking heed of their aggressive style.

"About all I can say is good luck to them," he said.

Debut worth waiting for

Probably the most impressive performance by a first-time starter at the young Gulfstream meet came Wednesday when Consistency, a 4-year-old gelding bred and owned by Glen Hill Farm, drew off to win the eighth race, a six-furlong maiden sprint, by nine lengths.

"I was kind of impressed with his race," said trainer Tom Proctor, whose greatest career win came with One Dreamer in the 1994 Breeders' Cup Distaff. "He was a big, overgrown colt with a lot of simple problems, and the people who work with the Glen Hill babies on the farm gave him all the time he needed."

Consistency, by Unbridled, could show up again by the end of January in an entry-level allowance race, said Proctor.

"If he stays sound, we'll see what happens," said Proctor. "It really doesn't matter what the heck I think. I learned that a long time ago in this game. If this horse stays sound and he keeps getting better, then he could be all right."

Uske tastes defeat at master's hands

It took one of Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day's patented rides to keep 16-year-old apprentice Shannon Uske out of the winner's circle. The 49-year-old Day, racing's all-time leading money-earning jockey, had to dig down and use all his experience to drive And Thats My Story to a hard-fought half-length victory over Uske and her mount, Lilah, in Thursday's $36,000 allowance feature.

Uske successfully launched her riding career by guiding Lilah to an easy victory in her first mount just nine days earlier at Calder. Uske had to extricate herself from some traffic problems down the backstretch and around the turn before angling to the rail where she took dead aim at And That's My Story at midstretch. But as usual, Day, who put And Thats My Story in perfect position stalking the early pace from the outset of the six-furlong dash, had enough in reserve to fend off his young rival and Lilah, who started the 8-5 favorite in a field of seven older fillies and mares.

And That's My Story won her third race in her last four starts. She is trained by Paul McGee for the Jay Emm Ess Stable.

"It was fun," Uske said despite suffering the first defeat of her riding career. "It was a real experience. My mare tried hard but we had no room most of the way. She got through on the inside and ran great."

Slim First Lady

Even without a standout, the $100,000 The First Lady Handicap does not appear to be attracting a very big field for its 21st running Sunday.

Probables for the six-furlong, Grade 3 race include Bruanna, Chispiski, Haunted Lass, Interest Only, and Slews Final Answer. Connections of several other nominees are said to be interested, including those of Away, Four Pennies, and Sea Span.

Entries much improved this year

Dave Bailey, Gulfstream's racing secretary, who struggled to fill entries right from the opening bell here a year ago, said he is extremely pleased the way entries went during the opening week of the 2003 meeting. Field sizes average 9.6 starters per race over the first six cards and the daily overnights were off the presses by 1:30 p.m. on a regular basis. Last season, fields averaged 8.2 starters a race with the entries not closing until 4 p.m. or later on most afternoons.

"The entries have gone even better than I expected," Bailey said, "primarily because of the extra horses we have stabled in the area this season at the Palm Meadows training facility and the fact we are on a five-day racing schedule right now. Naturally entries will slow down a bit once we have to fill six cards a week beginning in February, but some of that should be offset when the Calder horses are freshened up and ready to run a bit. Right now I'm still confident we'll be able to fulfill our goal, which is averaging 8.8 to 9.0 starters per race over the course of the entire meeting."

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch