08/25/2004 12:00AM

For Gill, lack of stalls but not success


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - What began as a whim has now become an obsession for the controversial owner Michael Gill.

Gill, who has won owner titles at several mid-Atlantic tracks as well as Gulfstream Park, has set his sights this summer on Thoroughbred racing's most prestigious meet, Saratoga.

So far, he has passed the audition.

Through the first 25 days of the meet, Gill is the leading owner with seven races won from 43 starters. At first, Gill wasn't sure he would run more than a few horses here this summer. But after tasting early success - he and trainer Mark Shuman won races each of the first three days of the meet - Gill decided to commit for the six weeks.

"I took a little vacation with the wife," Gill said during a recent interview. "I said let's go to Saratoga and run a few horses. I ran a few horses and I said, 'You know what? We can beat them up here.' I told Mark I want to try and win this."

While Gill's horses are welcome here, Gill believes he is not. As is the case in most jurisdictions, Gill is not allotted stalls in New York. Gill says it's because of his aggressive claiming tactics. Gill has a history of claiming dozens of horses and running some of them for below the level of the claim.

New York Racing Association officials, however, point to Gill's and his trainers' troubled past as to why he is denied stalls.

Two of Gill's trainers, John Robb and Shuman, have each had one medication positive in New York. Last fall, Robb served a 45-day suspension for the finding of the painkiller butorphanol in a horse he ran at Belmont in June 2003. Shuman was fined $5,000 for the finding of celexocib, the active ingredient in Celebrex, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, in a horse he ran at Belmont last September. Shuman was also suspended 20 days for a steroid injection given the same horse outside of the permitted time frame. Shuman's appeal of both penalties is still pending.

In 1995, when Gill took out a trainer's license, he was suspended three years by the New Hampshire Parimutuel Commission for the finding of injectable drugs and hypodermic needles in his barn.

"He had two trainers race in New York, they both had positives, and he's had a record of his own," said Barry Schwartz, NYRA's chairman. "He's not somebody I'm eager to have in New York. It's not about the claiming."

Thus, Gill has to ship his horses in from his Elk Creek Ranch training facility in Pennsylvania. The shipping, according to Shuman, has taken its toll on some of his horses. After running 39 horses the first 18 days of the meet, the Shuman and Gill duo has run only four the last eight days through Thursday. Two horses they planned to run on Aug. 14 were injured on the van.

"We've had to slow down a little bit, but we'll have plenty to run the last two weeks," Shuman said.

Also, since NYRA denies Gill stalls, he is eligible to claim a horse only after one is claimed from him. Thus far, Gill has had six horses claimed from him and has claimed six. His claims have totaled $325,000.

Gill doesn't just have claimers. In 2003, he was active at auction, trying to buy stakes-caliber horses. Forest Music, a 3-year-old filly, finished third in the Grade 1 Test here on July 31. She was being pointed to Sunday's Grade 1 Ballerina Handicap but is suffering from a foot injury and will miss the race.

"Right now I'm an island," said Gill, who going into Wednesday's racing was the leading owner in the country with 307 wins and second in purse earnings with $7,037,238. "The other claiming trainers don't like me because I claim their horses. I bought the most 2-year-olds in the country last year. The wealthier people in the sport look down on claiming people, and the fact I'm getting in with them, they don't like that either. They think this is their game to play. As long as we come and we put a couple of claimers in to fill the rest of the races we're tolerable.''

Gary Contessa has claimed two horses from Gill. Contessa said he doesn't know Gill that well, but doesn't understand why he is denied stalls.

"In this world you're innocent until proven guilty with the exception of Mike Gill," Contessa said. "He's aggressive in his tactics. Is he any more aggressive than Scott Lake or Richard Dutrow or any of the other powerful claiming outfits in New York? He would give us an influx of new horses to claim. It would make it more interesting, more competitive."

Gill said he would like to have horses in New York, especially during the winter at Aqueduct. Gill spent last winter in Southern California, claiming more than 70 horses, and then abruptly left at the end of the spring. Schwartz said Gill is free to apply for stalls, but he has already been turned down.

"Right now we just can't accommodate him," said Mike Lakow, the NYRA racing secretary.

So, Gill will set his sights on being leading owner at Saratoga.

"I'm going to keep going till the end of the meet," Gill said. "I'm committed to doing this. I want to win it and just irritate them. I'm still looking to run in New York. . . . . I own track records [for wins] at Gulfstream, Charles Town, Pimlico, Laurel, Delaware, Monmouth. I should be in New York. All I'm asking for is an opportunity."