11/22/2002 12:00AM

Houston, we have a problem

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Team New York is beginning to take shape for the inaugural NTRA Great State Challenge at Sam Houston Race Park in Texas Dec. 7, but many of this year's top New York-breds won't be making the trip.

Beautiful America, Carson Hollow, and Gander, the leaders of their respective divisions, will not represent New York in the six-race invitational event, which pits statebreds from different states against each other.

Gander and Beautiful America are being pointed to other races and Grade 1 winner Carson Hollow is being freshened for a 2003 campaign.

Two other outstanding New York-breds, Say Florida Sandy and Critical Eye, also aren't headed to the Lone Star State.

The status of the undefeated Funny Cide, the leading 2-year-old New York-bred male, is uncertain because the gelding is fighting a recurring lung infection, according to trainer Barclay Tagg.

Among the New York-breds listed by the New York Thoroughbred Breeders as under consideration for the Great State Challenge are Celtic Sky, J B Hood, Princess Dixie, Quiet Ruler, and Well Fancied.

Some of the reasons listed by horsemen for not participating is the timing of the event, which comes at the end of a long season for many horses, and the expense of transporting a horse to Texas.

Gander, a millionaire who has become the unofficial poster horse for New York's racing and breeding program because of his consistent performances in graded races, would have been a major contender in the Great State Challenge Classic, a 1 1/8-mile dirt race for 3-year-olds and up. But his owners, brothers Mike and Ted Gatsas, felt the pot wasn't big enough.

The brothers were originally keen on the idea of going to Texas when they heard about the Great State Challenge earlier this year, but had a change of heart when they realized that Gander would be competing for a purse of only $175,000 in the Classic. The base purse of each of the Great State Challenge races is $175,000, with an additional $50,000 from the Breeders' Cup Fund and another $50,000 thrown in from the participating statebred fund.

If they are Breeders' Cup eligible, Great State Challenge runners from other states will be competing for the maximum purse of $275,000. New York-breds, however, will not receive money from the state fund since a law prevents the New York State Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund from distributing money outside the state.

Gander is also ineligible for Breeders' Cup money because he isn't a Breeders' Cup nominee. The brothers did supplement Gander, who is trained by John Terranova, in 2000 so he could compete in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"I told [Terranova] it looked like a lot of fun and that we could display New York quite well with Gander," Mike Gatsas said. "But when we heard it was $175,000 and then we had to ship him to Texas and get everyone else there . . ."

Instead of the Great State Challenge, Gander, a 6-year-old gelding, will likely run in Friday's $400,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.

NYTB membership rises

Dennis Brida, the executive director of the NYTB, said membership in the organization that represents the interests of those involved in New York's breeding and racing program is at an all-time high of nearly 800. Brida said when he began his duties with the NYTB in April, the membership was 500.

Brida attributes increased benefits for members as one of the reasons for the upswing. Some of the new perks include discounts at hotels, free admission to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and discounts at the gift stores at New York Racing Association tracks.

"Of course, we also have gained more people because there are more farms and more owners," Brida said. "This is a growing industry in New York."

Year of the Tiger

Runaway Tiger, a winner of five of six starts at Finger Lakes this year, was named Finger Lakes Horse of the Year on Wednesday. The 4-year-old New York-bred filly also was recognized as the year's best female.

The other winners were Cash Only and Solomon's Seal (older males); J's Wild Slew (3-year-old male); and Shera (3-year-old filly).

Also on Wednesday, Packett's Landing, who won the New York Derby and Rochester Cup in 1989 at Finger Lakes, was inducted into the track's hall of fame.

* The NYTB will host a dinner on Dec. 3 at Red's Restaurant in Coxsackie, N.Y., featuring guest speaker Nathan Rudgers, the commissioner of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. Tickets are $20 for NYTB members and $25 for non-members. For more information call the NYTB at (518) 587-0777.