04/25/2002 11:00PM

Gander back with N.Y.-breds

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JAMAICA, N.Y. - Since finishing eighth in the Kings Point two years ago, Gander was recognized as New York's Horse of the Year in 2000, picked up checks in several Grade 1 races, and won his first graded race, the Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup, last fall.

On Sunday at Aqueduct, a more accomplished Gander gives the Kings Point Handicap another whirl in his first start in a statebred race since winning the Evan Shipman in July 2000.

The Kings Point drew 17 runners and was split into two divisions. With his drop to restricted company, Gander, the 124-pound highweight of the second division, figures to be a short-priced favorite over eight rivals.

In his last start, Gander, who has earned more than $1.3 million for owners Mike and Ted Gatsas, finished seventh in the Grade 2 San Antonio at Santa Anita on Feb. 3. John Terranova, Gander's trainer, said his 6-year-old gelding never really settled into a groove in California, where he spent the early part of the winter.

Terranova returned Gander to Belmont shortly after the San Antonio, with the 1 1/8-mile Kings Point as the target.

"He really thrives at home," Terranova said. "The timing is right for this race and it's a good starting point for the year. We don't really have any plans after this."

Gander tuned-up for the Kings Point with a bullet work earlier in the week and will be ridden by John Velazquez, who has won two runnings of the Kings Point. Gander, who drew post 5, has won over wet tracks and rain is in the forecast for Sunday.

If Gander isn't up to the task - he is without a win in five starts at Aqueduct - among the candidates for an upset are Sophisticated Man, Fourth and Six, and Personable Pete.

In the first division, The Cool Grape and Ahpo Here are the main contenders.

The Cool Grape recorded a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 100 in his last start, a third-level allowance victory at Aqueduct on March 27. The Cool Grape controlled the pace and won the 1 1/8-mile race by 12 1/2 lengths, but might not get such an easy lead here.

Bruce Levine, saddling winners at a healthy 22 percent clip this year, sends out Ahpo Here, a sharp winner of an allowance sprint at Aqueduct off a layoff on March 28.

Jim Bond, who trains Kentucky Derby hopeful Buddha, is represented by Personal Pro, last year's champion 3-year-old colt in New York, in the first division, and Deputy Shaker in the second.

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