Updated on 09/15/2011 2:29PM

Gander leaves girlfriend behind for Clark

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The holidays are a time to be spent with loved ones, but this week, Gander is going to have to go it alone. He will have to leave his steady companion, Heather's Promise, back at Belmont Park, and venture to the wilds of Kentucky all by his lonesome. Time to buck up.

* has gone to Churchill Downs for Friday's Grade 2, $400,000 Clark Handicap. It will be the final start of the year for the 5-year-old gray gelding, who has made more money this year - $543,500 - than in any of his three previous seasons on the track. Part of that might be the natural maturation of a racehorse allowed to steadily progress. But his improvement also coincided with his being introduced to Heather's Promise, a filly who trainer John Terranova and his wife, Tonja, believe has had a calming effect on Gander.

"He was a real nervous horse. He would never relax," Tonja Terranova said. "Since they've been together, he stands next to her."

"He eats better now, too," John Terranova said.

They now are purposely kept in adjoining stalls at Belmont Park. They first ended up next to each other purely by accident, when Terranova's horses encamped at Saratoga for the summer of 2000.

"He's a gelding. Nothing was going to happen," John Terranova mused.

That was when Gander started to make a significant leap forward. He had been a steady performer in stakes restricted to New York-breds, but his occasional forays into graded stakes company found him wanting.

Last year, however, Gander finished third in the Grade 2 Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap, was a close third in the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park, then was second in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. His improvement convinced his owners, Mike and Ted Gatsas, to supplement Gander to last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, and though Gander only finished ninth that day at Churchill Downs, it was clear he had moved to the next level.

Initially at Saratoga, Gander and Heather's Promise could only peer at one another through the tiny cracks in the stall walls. But at Belmont Park, the Terranovas built a small window between their two stalls.

"He started running better and better," John Terranova said.

This year has been better still. Gander was third in the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga, then at long last got his first victory in a graded stakes with his determined performance in the Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup Handicap. Terranova added blinkers to Gander's equipment for the Meadowlands Cup. They are called "cheaters," because the plastic blinker cup is quite small. But John Terranova thinks it helped just that much.

"It's just enough to keep him focused, to keep him in the bridle," he said.

The Meadowlands Cup victory - Gander's 10th in 38 starts - put Gander on course for this year's Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park. But Gander never had a chance, because he was pinched back badly at the start. Yet in a remarkable effort for a horse who prefers to be on or near the lead, Gander advanced as far as fifth with a quarter-mile remaining, but he flattened out in the stretch and wound up ninth, beaten by 10 lengths.

"That's not his style," John Terranova said. "He's got to come away clean and grind it out."

After the Clark, Gander will get a brief freshening. He could end up in California this winter with a contingent of horses Terranova sent west. But because Heather's Promise was ill recently, she is not going to join Gander in Kentucky this week. Will breaking up be hard to do? The Terranovas hope not.

"When she shipped out from Saratoga, he didn't eat for four days," Tonja Terranova said. "Maybe we should stand her at the finish line."

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