07/22/2004 11:00PM

Gander still tops among locals

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ELMONT, N.Y. - is not quite up to playing with the big boys in the handicap division, as he once did, but he is still king among veteran New York-bred stakes horses.

He will be the horse to beat in Sunday's closing-day stakes at Belmont Park, the $100,000-added Evan Shipman Handicap.

Seven New York-breds were entered in the 1 1/16-mile dirt race, including the 2002 winner, . Gander, the 123-pound highweight, won the Evan Shipman in 2000.

Gander has earned more than $1.8 million for brothers Mike and Ted Gatsas. An 8-year-old gelding, Gander has placed in several Grade 1 races, but his best efforts as he has gotten older have been in allowance or state-bred races.

"He's danced a lot of dances," said Tonja Terranova, the wife of and assistant to Gander's trainer, John Terranova. "The desire is still there. He proved that at Aqueduct when he won the Kings Point. He can still compete with New York-bred stakes horses."

On closing-day of Aqueduct's spring meet, May 2, Gander won the Kings Point Handicap. In his last start, Gander finished last in the Grade 2 Brooklyn, beaten 25 lengths.

Rain is in the forecast for the weekend, and Gander, who will be ridden by the meet's leading rider, John Velazquez, runs well over wet tracks. Gander drew post 3.

Gander periodically has been equipped with blinkers. The blinkers are back on Sunday for the first time since he finished sixth in last year's Evan Shipman. He has won four of 19 starts with the blinkers.

Mike Brice, the trainer of Rogue Agent, who is 4 for 6 on wet tracks, is closely following The Weather Channel's forecast. "We are doing a rain dance," he said.

Rogue Agent, who won an optional claimer in the slop at Belmont in May, finished fifth in his last start, July 4, against allowance horses. A seventh-place finish in the Grade 2 Massachusetts Handicap preceded that race. Earlier this year, Rogue Agent finished third behind Brooklyn Handicap winner Seattle Fitz in the Grade 3 Aqueduct Handicap.

"In the Mass Cap, we took him out of his game by thinking we could rate him," Brice said. "And I shouldn't have run him in his last race; that was my mistake. His blood count was low after he ran, but we've got it right now and another blood test we took was fine."

Spite the Devil has won 2 of his last 19 starts, including last year's Grade 3 Withers and his last race, a restricted starter allowance July 8.

Sherpa Guide is looking for his first win since the 2002 Evan Shipman.