01/01/2004 12:00AM

Funny Cide 'back in the groove'

Email

MIAMI - New Year's day may have been a holiday for some, but not trainer Barclay Tagg or Kentucky Derby winner , who celebrated turning 4 by working six furlongs in 1:11.20 on Thursday morning at the Palm Meadows training center.

"He worked good the whole way," Tagg said. "He's really starting to get fit now and back to where he was when he was good last year. He was a little sluggish in his first couple of works after getting down to Florida but he seems to be back in the groove now."

Funny Cide has not started since finishing ninth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, a performance Tagg attributes to the hot weather at Santa Anita that day.

"He just doesn't have the respiratory system conducive to really hot weather," Tagg said. "The same thing happened to him when he went to Monmouth Park for the Haskell. He won't run in those kind of conditions again."

Tagg said he continues to point Funny Cide for the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Feb. 7 but remains uncertain if he'll get a prep into his horse before the race or train him straight into the Donn.

"Right now I'm playing things by ear," said Tagg. "A lot will depend on how he's doing. There's nothing in the book for him at the moment, but if I can find a little something for him and he's right, I'll put him in a race. The main thing is that he's not a 3-year-old any more, and I'm not under any pressure to make any race with him this year."

Who'll win the races Gill-Shuman won?

Just as quickly as owner Michael Gill and trainer Mark Shuman came to Gulfstream Park to set all sorts of records, they are gone after just one year. Gill now has set up shop in Southern California and elsewhere, returning Gulfstream to those who were here long before he decided to take it by storm last year.

With the departure of Gill and Shuman, who teamed to win an astounding 87 races at the 2003 meet, a vacuum is created, one that begs for a stable to step in and take over. The race for leading trainer may be more competitive than it was last year, when Shuman dominated, but one name keeps popping up as the most logical heir to the Gulfstream crown: Todd Pletcher.

With 70 horses taking up two barns at Palm Meadows, and another seven stalls at Gulfstream, Pletcher clearly has the kind of numbers to lead all trainers in wins. But he is ambivalent about whether he is the favorite to be the leading trainer.

"I've never been the leading trainer at Gulfstream, but I wouldn't put it high on my priority list," said Pletcher. "We're going to be represented by a solid, diversified stable. We've got horses for most of the categories, including quite a few maidens and allowance horses.

"My main objective when we come down here every winter is to develop horses. Hopefully, we'll be very competitive, and management will be satisfied with the kind of numbers we can give them. Hopefully, we'll have some success in the stakes program, too. We're looking forward to a solid meet."

Pletcher, who set a record for most wins at a Saratoga meet last summer, typically ships many of his horses out of south Florida in late March or early April, although he leaves some behind to run through the end of the meet. "The priority is to head north with a strong hand," he said.

If Pletcher has a disappointing meet, there is no shortage of other candidates to contend for the top-trainer title. Probably the top challenger is Bill Mott, who has a large stable at Payson Park and knows something about winning Gulfstream titles. From 1993 to 2002, Mott won or shared 9 of the 10 training titles here.

Others who have large numbers here and are likely to win at a steady clip are Scott Lake, Wayne Catalano, Dale Romans, and Steve Asmussen.

Guidry returns from sabbatical

Jockey Mark Guidry, who has been inactive since Oct. 26, returns Saturday with several mounts. Guidry, a former Chicago kingpin who has been based primarily in Kentucky in recent years, took time off following the death of his brother-in-law to return to their home state of Louisiana, where Guidry has spent recent weeks hunting, fishing, and relaxing.

Booking mounts for Guidry here is Terry "Jaws" Miller, a veteran Kentucky agent spending his first winter at Gulfstream. Miller also is working for Craig Perret, who is back at Gulfstream after an absence of about six years.

Infield television unveiled

Gulfstream opens Saturday with several fan-friendly improvements, most notably a large television screen next to the infield toteboard in the vicinity of the sixteenth-pole.

The track also has built several sky-suite-style private rooms in the Turf Club for private parties and for high-handle horseplayers.

Racing is five days a week for now

Sticking to a racing schedule that was revamped last year, Gulfstream will race just five days a week in January and February, with Mondays and Tuesdays dark (except for racing on the Martin Luther King holiday, Jan. 19).

The schedule switches to six days, adding Mondays in March and April.

Calder horsemen get a break

Racing secretary Dave Bailey has adjusted his condition book this winter, with most of the changes earmarked to help the Calder-based horsemen, who are annually staunch supporters of the Gulfstream Park program.

"I've written a maiden $16,000 claiming race for the first time this year and also put up a nonwinners-of-two category for 3-year-olds with a $16,000 tag," Bailey said. "I also dropped the bottom for older claiming horses from $8,000 to $6,250."

Bailey acknowledged that horsemen were overpaid in 2003, and that most of that overpayment will be made up in the first book, although overnight purses are still expected to average $230,000 daily through January.

"Purses averaged out at $244,000 per day last year, but hopefully with the increase in field size and the quality of our races we're expecting this winter we'll be able to quickly start increasing purses and get up to over $250,000 before the meet ends," Bailey said.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee