11/25/2003 12:00AM

Gill says good-bye to south Florida

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MIAMI - Mike Gill burst upon the local racing scene amidst a claiming frenzy during the tail end of the 2002 Tropical meet at Calder. But barring a change in plans, his tumultuous one-year stay in south Florida ended earlier this week when the last of his stable shipped out of town.

Gill won races and claimed horses at a record pace during the 2003 Gulfstream meet despite running under a cloud of controversy. Gill was investigated by regulators after one of his veterinarians amputated a leg from a horse who had been euthanized as a result of a racing injury. Gill was exonerated, but later filed a lawsuit against Gulfstream Park, alleging he was defamed. The suit remains unsettled.

Gill applied for stalls but was rejected at both the 2003 Calder and Tropical at Calder meets. Determined to continue racing in the area, he was left with no other option but to rent stall space at a training facility adjacent to Calder. Gill and trainer Gamaliel Vazquez continued to claim horses by the dozens. But last week, Gill's patience finally ran out.

"It got to the point where I just couldn't operate out of the training center any more," Gill said by phone. "The training track was in terrible shape and the barn area itself was in horrible condition, especially after it rained. There was even raw sewage floating by the barns."

Gill instructed Vazquez to pull all his foal papers from the racing office last Thursday and begin shipping the remaining horses north.

"I really don't want to leave," said Vazquez. "I was hoping to get stalls at Calder and stay down here year-round. If we did we'd have even run some over at Gulfstream this winter."

Gill did not apply for stalls at Gulfstream or Palm Meadows for the 2004 meet because of the pending lawsuit.

Vazquez said he would be taking some of Gill's south Florida acquisitions to Fair Grounds. The remainder were being sent north to either Gill's farm in Pennsylvania or to Laurel Park, where Gill has stalls for the winter.

Best of the Rest not done yet

Trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. said local handicap champion Best of the Rest will run once more this year, in the Grade 3 Fred W. Hooper Handicap on Dec. 27. He said there is also a chance Best of the Rest will be kept in training to defend his title in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita the following month.

Plesa said he thought Best of the Rest, who is slated to begin standing stud at Farnsworth Farm in 2004, would be retired following his victory in the Carl G. Rose Classic on Nov. 15, only two weeks after the death of his owner-breeder, Bernie Oxenberg.

But Plesa said that Bea Oxenberg, who owned and bred Best of the Rest along with her late husband, has decided to run Best of the Rest at least one more time.

"Bea told me she discussed the situation with the family and they all decided they'd like to run him at least once more as long as he's healthy," Plesa said. "Right now he's doing great. He came out of his last race in good order.

"She also broached the subject of possibly trying him again in the Sunshine Millions Classic, although for now we're going to take things one race at a time. Obviously with the Classic on the West Coast this year it makes things a lot more difficult than if it were in your own back yard, but we'll cross that river when we come to it."

Plesa is coming off one of the most successful days of his career. He saddled four winners from five starters on last Friday's program. It was just the second time he had ever won four races on a single card.

"Oddly enough, the only horse of the five I ran that went postward as the favorite, Adreality, was the only one who lost," said Plesa.

Record nominees for Fla. Derby

A record 160 2-year-olds have been nominated for Gulfstream Park's Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby. The total shatters the previous record of 134 set in 1992.

"Every top 2-year-old in the United States is an early bird nominee," said Dave Bailey, Gulfstream's director of racing and racing secretary.

Among the early nominees to the March 13 Florida Derby are Action This Day and Minister Eric, the one-two finishers in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and trainer Nick Zito's promising pair of Birdstone, winner of the Champagne Stakes, and Eurosilver, winner of the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity.

Also on the list are Smoocher, the pride of Canada following his victory in the Grey Breeders' Cup Stakes, Calder-based juveniles Silver Wagon and Sir Oscar, and recent Laurel Futurity winner Tapit.

* Silver Wagon worked an easy five furlongs in 1:03.60 Tuesday morning at Calder as he continues to move closer to his return, which could come in the $100,000 What a Pleasure Stakes Dec. 13. Silver Wagon has not started since winning the Grade 1 Hopeful on Aug. 30.