09/11/2003 11:00PM

Gill won't return to Gulfstream to defend title

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MIAMI - Michael Gill, the country's top owner in races won, and trainer Mark Shuman shattered records and stirred controversy during the 2003 Gulfstream Park meeting. But neither one of them will likely be back this winter to defend his title.

Barring an unforeseen change in plans, Gill said he will be racing in the mid-Atlantic region and at Fair Grounds in New Orleans this winter.

"Believe me, I'd love nothing better than to race in Florida during the winter," Gill said by phone on Thursday. "The Gulfstream Park condition book fits my operation perfectly, and I'd much rather spend the winter sitting under palm trees than leaning up against snow banks. But right now I have an ongoing lawsuit against Gulfstream Park, and I just don't think it's appropriate nor would I feel comfortable supporting that meet as long as the lawsuit is pending."

Shuman won 87 races for Gill during the 2003 Gulfstream meeting, obliterating the previous mark of 34 set by trainer Bill Mott a year earlier. But Shuman and Gill were often criticized by rival trainers for aggressive claiming tactics, and they came under scrutiny from track and state racing officials after a bizarre incident involving the gelding Casual Conflict, owned by Gill and trained by Shuman.

One of their veterinarians, Dr. Phillip Aleong, removed a front leg from Casual Conflict minutes after the gelding broke down during a race on Feb. 3. The incident raised suspicions, but Shuman was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing after an investigation by Florida regulatory officials. Later, Gill sued Gulfstream Park, alleging that track officials withheld the results of the investigation and made disparaging remarks to the news media. Some tracks, notably in Delaware and New York, have refused to grant stall space to Gill.

Stall applications for the 2004 Gulfstream meet are not due until Oct. 1.

Track president Scott Savin said Friday that Gill would be treated like anyone else if he were to apply.

"If he applies, his application will be reviewed and processed along with the rest," Savin said. "Obviously he ran a lot of horses at our meet last winter, but no one outfit is bigger than the game, and with the additional stalls available at Palm Meadows there will be a much larger horse population to draw from for the upcoming season. Our meet will survive just fine with or without Gill's horses here next winter."

Gill is far and away the country's leading owner this year, with 289 winners through Thursday. He has about 300 horses in training, the majority stabled either at his training facility in Pennsylvania or at Bowie or Laurel Park in Maryland. Also, he has taken stalls at a private training facility adjacent to Calder Race Course, where he has claimed more than 30 horses in the past several weeks.

Gill said that Shuman and John Robb will oversee the training of his mid-Atlantic horses and that Nick Canani, whom Gill hired earlier this summer, will likely handle his horses at Fair Grounds. He said trainer Gamaliel Vazquez, who is in Florida, would likely join Canani in New Orleans at the close of the Tropical at Calder meeting.

"We'll continue racing in Maryland and start sending a lot more horses to Philadelphia Park this winter," Gill said. "Right now it looks like legislation could be close to passing which would give Philly Park video lottery terminals and, as a result, dramatically increase the size of their purses, which naturally would appeal to our operation.

"We've also been invited by officials at the Fair Grounds to race there during the winter," he said. "We'll probably keep about 40 horses stabled on the grounds, and I've also discussed the possibility of leasing another barn on the Fair Grounds backstretch that is owned by Louie Roussel."

Brian Krantz, general manager at the Fair Grounds, said stall applications are not yet due for the 2003-04 meet, but he sees no reason why Gill would not be allotted space.

"He has been racing at Louisiana Downs, and as far as I know he's been a good citizen up there," Krantz said of Gill. "If he's licensed by the state and has been a good citizen, I don't know why we'd have a problem issuing him some stalls."

Gill said he would also like to race year-round at Calder in north Miami, but has been frustrated because he was not granted stall space for the current meet.

"Our barn area is already oversubscribed," said Calder president Ken Dunn, "and it's hard to toss people out who have been established here for years for someone who has had no history here other than the 20 horses he claimed during the 2002 Tropical meet."

- additional reporting by Marcus Hersh