12/28/2001 1:00AM

Gomez: A Calder legend from the start


MIAMI - When Calder opened in 1971, the successor to Tropical Park, one of the first stables on the grounds was that of trainer Frank Gomez, with the horses of the Tartan Stable, owned by W.L. McKnight and managed by John Nerud.

McKnight was the chief executive officer of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M), which several years earlier, at the request of Nerud, developed an artificial surface for racetracks that was designed to counter bad weather. Several generations of the artificial track had been installed as an inner course at Tropical Park, with mixed results. McKnight, seeking more of a test for the product, agreed to lend Stephen Calder the money that would enable Calder to complete construction of the track and open it for business if Calder would agree to use the artificial surface as the main track. The loan's terms were more than generous and Calder accepted an offer he couldn't refuse.

Saul Silberman, the colorful president of Tropical Park, and indisputably his own best customer, came to breakfast at McKnight's winter home on La Gorce Island off Miami Beach on a Sunday morning in early spring, a few months before Calder was to open. Silberman had reservations about the practicality of an articifcial surface and expressed himself as a cautionary to his good friend McKnight, who had paid Silberman handsomely to install the artificial surface at Tropical Park.

"Mister Mack" Silberman commented over coffee and danish, "this experiment with the artificial surface could be expensive. You could lose a million dollars a year."

"In that case, Saul," McKnight replied with a smile, "in 300 years I'll be broke."

The artificial surface at Calder was not all it was hoped and was eventually covered by a layer of sand. This proved to be a temporary solution to the problem and eventually was discarded and a regular track was installed.

McKnight died, his stable was dispersed, Calder died, and the track was sold. The great experiment proved less than a rousing success when Frank Gomez had found a home. He became the most successful trainer ever to race at Calder. In the 30 years of the track's existence, he has saddled almost 1,200 winners, including more than 100 stakes victories. He is to the south Florida area what Woody Stephens was to New York and what Charlie Whittingham was to Southern California.

Gomez developed such champions as Princess Rooney, Smile, and Cherokee Run. He traveled extensively as a young horseman and had enough of that life. When the time came for his champions to leave the south Florida area and seek fame at tracks across the country, Gomez gave them up to remain at Calder and it was others who saddled them to important victories in the Breeders' Cup.

Gomez was born in Limerick, Ireland, the son of a trainer. He rode jumpers at European tracks for 12 years, came to America with jumping horses, and landed a job with an outstanding horseman, E. Barry Ryan. He took out his trainer's license some 40 years ago, and proved beyond question that he has a way with a horse. Still going strong at 72, Gomez is looking forward to the new season with considerable anticipation. He likes his young stock.