01/01/2004 1:00AM

Jerkens loads both barrels


MIAMI - Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens will have the upper hand when he sends out against eight other older handicap horses in Saturday's $100,000 Hal's Hope Handicap at Gulfstream Park. The Hal's Hope, at 1 1/16 miles, serves as a prep for the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Feb. 7.

Bowman's Band, the highweight under 118 pounds in the Hal's Hope, makes his fourth start since switching to the Jerkens barn in the fall. A son of Dixieland Band, Bowman's Band won the Grade 2 Meadowlands Breeders' Cup shortly after joining the Jerkens stable. He has made two subsequent starts, both around one turn, finishing second in the seven-furlong Sport Page Handicap and fourth behind Congaree in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile.

Jerkens was quick to credit former trainer Michael Matz for Bowman's Band's performance in the Meadowlands Cup.

"I only had him a week before that race, and he was already in good shape when I got him," said Jerkens. "His last race wasn't up to par, but he's been training okay since then."

Bowman's Band worked a half-mile in 47.40 at Gulfstream on Thursday.

Puzzlement has not started since finishing third in the Grade 1 Woodward on Sept. 6. He contracted an illness soon after the race. But like Bowman's Band, Puzzlement has been training steadily since arriving in Florida. He blew out three furlongs in 35.20 on Thursday.

Puzzlement won the Grade 2 Saratoga Breeders' Cup in August and has always run well at Gulfstream, where he has never been worse than third in six starts. He finished third in both the Grade 1 Donn and Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup handicaps here last winter.

"He ran some big races this summer at Saratoga but is always just a cut below the best in his division," said Jerkens.

The Hal's Hope will have plenty of speed in the lineup, which could set up perfectly for Puzzlement, a late- runner. Puzzlement's regular rider Jorge Chavez has the mount.

Gander, who drew the rail, figures prominently throughout. In his most recent start, he finished third in the Grade 3 Stuyvesant Handicap in November, beaten three-quarters of a length.

Vinemeister, stretching out off a recent sprint effort at Calder, will break alongside Gander and also should be close to the lead early.

Well Fancied, whose four-race win streak came to an end in the Cigar Mile, and New York Hero should show speed from the middle of the pack. Stockholder and stretch-out sprinter Senor Amigo may have no choice but to come away running from their outside posts.