02/17/2003 12:00AM

Lion Tamer's next hoop: Two turns

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As welcome as Saturday's Fountain of Youth and Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream and Sunday's Risen Star at Fair Grounds were, it is important to remember this: As preps for the Kentucky Derby, they are not nearly as critical as such races as the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass, and Wood Memorial.

But with the way Lion Tamer won the Hutcheson, Badge of Silver won the Risen Star, and Trust N Luck won the Fountain of Youth, you would have to be very cold-blooded not to get a little excited about what is to come.

For me, that was especially true of Lion Tamer, who may be a special horse. Lion Tamer blew me away with the way he won an allowance race early in the Gulfstream meet, and he blew his Hutcheson field away while showing improved tactical speed. He left Scrimshaw 10 1/2 lengths behind in fourth, although it's hard to tell how much of that was due to Scrimshaw being flat and how much to Lion Tamer himself. Scrimshaw was 2 for 3 at Santa Anita and was the 9-5 favorite in that track's Santa Catalina, so the Hutcheson result is the season's first fodder for comparing East Coast and West Coast 3-year-old form.

Now, the question is if Lion Tamer will stretch out. Of course, you never really know until they do it, but an educated guess says, why not? Lion Tamer is a son of Will's Way, a Travers and Whitney winner, and there is all his own talent to consider, too.

The unbeaten Badge of Silver may also be a special horse. At least we know no horse who has faced him has been able to test him. His 10-length win Sunday means that his smallest margin of victory is seven lengths. But, even more impressive was how he handled a tough, outside post and running two turns for the first time in the Risen Star, and how he rated kindly. The only question now for Badge of Silver is how high his ceiling is.

Two turns was not the issue for Trust N Luck. He was 2 for 3 around two turns going into the Fountain of Youth, including an 11-length, 110 Beyer Figure romp at Calder in December. The questions for him Saturday were: What would he do facing much better company, and what would happen if he didn't get loose on the lead again?

I didn't think Trust N Luck would establish another uncontested lead. Was I wrong. I thought maybe the stretch-out sprinter Conservation might go with him early, or maybe Offlee Wild, or maybe even Whywhywhy, who was fresh. I thought someone would go with Trust N Luck early, because if you looked at his past performances, every time Trust N Luck made the lead at the first call, he won. You can't let a horse who may be iron on the lead have his way, or else you will only be running for second money.

It turned out to be Midway Cat who was closest to Trust N Luck early. But, Midway Cat doesn't want to run that way; he's a stalker. And, when he was taken back into the first turn, as is his style, it left Trust N Luck alone in front. As a result, the dance was over.

On the other hand, maybe Trust N Luck is so good that he would have made the early lead Saturday regardless of his opposition's approach. One thing we do know, however, is the higher level of opposition in the Fountain of Youth certainly didn't stop him from racking up another lopsided score.

Shuman-Gill hit cold streak

I'm sure it's just a coincidence that after the owner-trainer team of Michael Gill and Mark Shuman came under intense scrutiny for the way they dominated the first part of the meet, and after one of their vets was barred from the grounds, the outfit hit a sudden cold spell last week.

From the Gulfstream cards of last Wednesday through Sunday, Gill and Shuman started 20 horses. Only two of them won. Both winners came on Sunday, and one of them, at 3-5, was a widely expected, although she barely lasted.

Racing is a game of streaks, and that is true from every perspective, whether it be owner, trainer, jockey, or bettor. And, it wasn't like this barn turned to complete ice, because it also had five second-place finishers. But, this still was a drastic turnaround for an outfit that, going into last Wednesday, was winning races at a 28 percent clip at the meet. Basic math would tell you that Gill-Shuman should have won with around six of those 20 starters. You know they should have done better when you consider that four of their losers went off at odds of less than 6-5.

Even more surprising about the sudden Gill-Shuman slump was the way most of their horses lost. At the risk of generalizing, the typical modus operandi for a Gill-Shuman horse at Gulfstream has been speed. One of the most eye-catching things about the way the Gill-Shuman horses had been running was that they would establish the lead and when a challenger closed in on them, they would re-break explosively. There were no impressive re-breaks Wednesday through Sunday, however, as 10 of the 18 Gill-Shuman losers had the lead at some stage of their races and failed to hold it.