01/22/2003 12:00AM

Ex-NFLer Cesare's big weekend

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Regardless of the results, this will be a weekend Bill Cesare is likely to remember for a long time. His emotions will be tested severely on Saturday when the trainer saddles the hard-hitting Cellars Shiraz in the $350,000 Filly and Mare Turf on the inaugural Sunshine Millions program at Gulfstream Park, and again on Sunday, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl at San Diego. Cesare was a defensive back for Tampa Bay for five years.

Cellars Shiraz, owned by the Bitterroot Stable of Robert and Corrine Walker, is one of the best horses Cesare has had in a training career of almost 20 years. A 4-year-old daughter of Kissin Kris, and a stakes winner on both dirt and grass with earnings of more than $550,000, Cellars Shiraz comes to the Sunshine Millions in peak form. Last month she was a convincing winner of the Francis Genter Handicap at Calder, coming from off the pace, which was in contrast to her usual style of setting or attending the pace.

"She is a gift from the Almighty," Cesare said the other day. "She gives her best every time, is always eager to run, has ability, and is sound.

"We sent her to California during the summer for the American Oaks at Hollywood Park and she was in front after a mile and an eighth. The mile and a quarter was a bit too far for her but she proved herself at nine furlongs, which is the distance Saturday."

When Cesare retired from football in 1984, George Steinbrenner, the Florida breeder and principal owner of the New York Yankees, helped him get started as a trainer by sending him five horses. Fred Hooper was another early patron of the stable and sent many talented runners during an association of 15 years. One of the best was Classic Value, a stakes winner of almost $500,000.

Walker, who sold jet planes, is now retired and lives on Lake Okeechobee.

He and his wife have had a small stable and breeding operation for almost 20 years. They have raced a number of useful horses but haven't had one to compare with Cellars Shiraz. Their filly faces the biggest challenge of her career Saturday but has a good chance under Eibar Coa in a competitive field.

Cesare played college football at Memphis State and the University of Miami. Lou Saban, who coached Miami in Cesare's final season, helped him connect with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he was a safety under coach John McKay for most of his five years in the National Football League.

"The best season I recall was 1979," Cesare said. "We had an outstanding group of coaches, including Joe Gibbs, the offensive coordinator, and later head coach of the Washington Redskins. Wayne Fontes, later head coach of the Detroit Lions, coached the defensive backs. That was the year we made the playoffs for the first time, and we beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round. We flew to Detroit for the right to make the conference championship and when we won, we had a plane trip home that I remember to this day.

"Doug Williams was the quarterback, Ricky Bell was the running back, and the Selmon brothers, Leroy and Dewey, were outstanding linemen. We weren't a particularly close team but on that flight back from Detroit we celebrated together. Winning that game was very meaningful to all of us."

Cesare played two years with the Birmingham team of the USFL before retiring in 1984 to become a trainer. He retains a love of football, and has season tickets to the Dolphins in Miami. He got a tremendous kick out of watching the Buccaneers beat the Philadelphia Eagles last week to gain the right to play in the Super Bowl.

"I watched that game at home on television," he said, "I was alone in the house, the wife and kids were outside playing with the horses. As the game unfolded I thought back to the days I was with Tampa Bay and it was a great experience. I'll be back in front of the television again on Sunday to watch the Super Bowl. You can write down a prediction: The Bucs will win."