01/29/2003 12:00AM

The luckiest trainer in America

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Gulfstream Park's leading trainer never saddled a winner here until the meeting opened on Jan. 3. Then Mark Shuman made up for lost time. He heads the list with 26 winners while Bill Mott, who has been leading trainer here nine times, is a distant second with seven winners.

Shuman's edge this season is the stable of Mike Gill. A mortgage broker from New Hampshire, Gill has one of the largest and most active stables in the country. Shuman has more than 60 of his horses in Florida, some at Gulfstream and a larger unit at the Palm Meadows training center in Boynton Beach. John Robb has a unit of similar size for Gill at Laurel Park in Maryland. Gamaliel Vazquez has some 20 of the Gill horses at Bowie, Md., and Ronney Brown has a fourth unit at Charles Town, W. Va.

Gill's trainers are busy, claiming horses and winning races. In 2001, Shuman, in the early stages of his training career, had eight winners from 88 starters who won purses totaling $172,164. Last year, training Gill's horses, he had 113 winners from 721 starters, with purses of $3,262,725. And the momentum continues.

"He is a competitive person and he loves the action of the claiming game," Shuman said of Gill. "He is an excellent handicapper and a very good judge of people and how they tend to act under certain circumstances. He initiates all our claims and the results speak for themselves."

One of the stable stars last year was First Amendment, whom Gill claimed for $50,000. He subsequently won two stakes. Gill claimed Out of Fashion for $16,000 off a two-year absence from competition. He was fourth in the Fall Highweight at Aqueduct and looks like one to beat in the $100,000 Deputy Minister at Gulfstream on Feb.8.

The 32-year-old Shuman was an assistant to his father, Joe, who trains at Ohio tracks and was a high school business and accounting teacher. The younger Shuman attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, with an eye on veterinary medicine but the lengthy requirement for study sent him back to the racetrack.

He landed a job with Tom Skiffington's stable, then worked for four years as assistant to Howard Tesher in New York. He also had two years with Jim Bond, but when his father developed cancer of the colon in 2000, Shuman returned home to train that stable while his father received chemotherapy.

Some of his father's patrons sent horses to get him started after his father recovered but the horses were of moderate quality. He saw the situation change, however, when blacksmith Bruce McCuan introduced him to Gill, who offered him a stable of 50 horses in Maryland. He accepted and has never been sorry.

"I consider myself the luckiest trainer in America to be where I am," Shuman said.

"Mr. Gill plans to upgrade the stable. He spent a couple of million dollars last year on 2-year-olds and will be buying some more stock in the weeks ahead. This is a game of highs and lows, and right now it's all high."