07/18/2003 12:00AM

Gander takes trip back to the future

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Three years ago, in the 26th start of his career - and first for trainer John Terranova - Gander won the Evan Shipman Stakes by two lengths.

Sunday, in the 52nd start of his career, the 7-year-old Gander will seek to duplicate that feat when he takes on 10 challengers in the 23rd renewal of the Evan Shipman, a $100,000 stakes for New York-breds at 1 1/16 miles that highlights Belmont Park's closing-day program.

Since his victory in the 2000 Evan Shipman, Gander has placed in eight graded stakes, and his biggest achievement is a victory in the Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup in 2001. He also won last year's Empire Classic, the last time he faced New York-breds.

Gander, owned by the Gatsas Stables, began this year with a victory against open company at Gulfstream. But, in the Grade 3 Westchester, Gander finished fourth behind Najran, who equaled the world record for one mile. In a subsequent allowance race, Gander finished 11 3/4 lengths behind Abreeze in a race run over a sloppy track.

Gander had been plagued by hind-end trouble earlier this year, but Tonja Terranova, John's wife and assistant, believes that is a non-issue entering Sunday's race.

"I think he's coming into this race the best he's been in a long time,'' Terranova said.

Gander will have to carry 124 pounds - a 5- to 12-pound concession to his 10 rivals - and break from post 11 under Eibar Coa. Horses breaking from post 11 are winless from seven starts in dirt routes at this meet.

Gander's most formidable rivals include Sherpa Guide, who won this race last year; Compelling World, second to Gander in the Empire Classic; and the Bruce Levine uncoupled entry of Ahpo Here and Thebigapple.

Sherpa Guide caught a wet track in his seasonal debut last month when he finished third in an open-company allowance race. "I haven't missed a beat with him since that race,'' trainer Tom Bush said.

Ahpo Here has not raced since winning an open-company third-level allowance race here 13 months ago. He was plagued by a hind-end problem and then a sickness and didn't come back to Levine until early May.

"He's training great,'' Levine said. "He's a nice horse. I don't know if he's up to the task.''

Thebigapple is 4 for 6 at Belmont, including two victories at this distance.

Compelling World was a fast-closing second to Gander in the Empire Classic. Though he has not run since last November, Compelling World won a second-level statebred race at 17-1 coming off an 11-month layoff in the past.