10/17/2002 12:00AM

Gander favored in Empire Classic


ELMONT, N.Y. - Gander, who has had his share of bad luck this year, is the one to beat in Saturday's $250,000 Empire Classic at Belmont Park.

The Empire Classic is one of seven New York-bred stakes worth a total of $1 million to be run on New York Showcase Day. The other stakes on the card are the $150,000 Mohawk, $150,000 Ticonderoga, $125,000 Hudson, $125,000 Iroquois, $100,000 Sleepy Hollow, and $100,000 Maid of the Mist. Among the top New York-breds entered in the Showcase stakes, which drew large fields, are Say Florida Sandy, Shopping for Love, Finality, Whitmore's Conn, Dat You Miz Blue, and Funny Cide.

Gander will be favored over 12 others in the 1 1/8-mile Empire. He packs top weight of 126 pounds and gives up six to 14 pounds. Gander, who won the Empire Classic in 1999, finished second in the Grade 1 Woodward behind Lido Palace in his last start on Sept. 7.

Owned by Gatsas Stables, Gander was entered to defend his title in the Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup on Oct. 4, but was scratched the day of the race after apparently banging his head in his stall.

It was the second time this year misfortune struck the Gander camp. At Saratoga, the 6-year-old gelding fell to his knees at the start of the Grade 2 Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap and lost his rider.

Gander's trainer, John Terranova, said he decided to err on the side of caution and scratch Gander from the Meadowlands Cup even though he wasn't seriously hurt.

"What happened was we thought he might have just banged his nose or something in the stall," Terranova said. "He had a little blood dripping out of it. It really wasn't a big deal, and we were kind of on the fence whether we should run or not.

"He's doing wonderful, and I'm really pretty confident in him right now," he added. "But the only bad part is they pack a lot of weight on us."

Gander, who will be ridden by Richard Migliore, figures to be a serious pace factor from post 2.

Sherpa Guide and Thebigapple could be Gander's toughest foes.

Sherpa Guide has blossomed into a solid competitor with three wins this year, including a three-length victory in the Evan Shipman here in July. The 4-year-old was up against it in the Woodward when he finished fifth, but is a much better fit in the Empire Classic.

"We know he likes Belmont," Tom Bush, Sherpa Guide's trainer, said. "He likes the big turns and he likes to be outside, which is not such a disadvantage here, compared to smaller tracks."

Jose Santos rides Sherpa Guide, who drew post 4.

Trained by Bruce Levine, Thebigapple won his last two races impressively in restricted company at Belmont. The colt ran 16 days ago and Levine said he would have preferred more time in between starts.

"I know his last race was a fast race, and even if the signs are all there that he came out of it well, sometimes you pay the price," Levine said.

Thebigapple, a 3-year-old, gets a significant weight advantage from Gander and carries 113 pounds in his stakes debut. Aaron Gryder rides Thebigapple, who shouldn't be far behind Gander in the early running.

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