07/14/2003 11:00PM

Nick Canani to train for Gill

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - California-based trainer Nick Canani has accepted a position from the nation's leading owner, Michael Gill, and will take over a 60-horse string next week at Bowie Training Center in Maryland. Canani said Gill offered him the job Friday, and that he will relocate early next week.

Canani, 29, joins Mark Shuman and John Robb as the three main trainers for Gill's high-volume operation. Through Monday, Gill led the nation in starts (1,098), wins (224), and earnings ($4,894,820). For Canani, the departure from California means dispersal of his 12-runner stable in California over the next few days.

"I'm getting into a real good organization," Canani said, "I have a lot of respect for the way [Gill] plays the claiming game. He's not afraid to lose them, and he's not afraid to claim. It's just a great operation to work for."

The move for Canani comes less than three months after he and Gill discussed the possibility of Gill sending a string of horses to California for Canani to train. Instead, Canani will go to the horses.

"With the size operation he has, I don't think it benefits him to have just five or 10 horses in California," Canani said. "I love California. It's a great spot, you can't beat the weather, the people are great, and I grew up here. But everything points toward the East Coast right now."

Canani's relocation follows a trend of California horsemen leaving for greener pastures. Trainers Bobby Frankel, Wayne Lukas, Chris Paasch, Cliff Sise, and Scott Hansen recently relocated all or part of their stables to the East and Midwest. Although the sheer size of Gill's operation would have allowed him to make an immediate impact in Southern California, Gill has decided for now not to open a West Coast stable. One reason is the rising cost of workers' compensation insurance in California.

For Canani, the decision to accept the job with Gill was sensible. Canani took out his training license 11 years ago, and has seen the size of his stable dwindle. Most of his runners are owned by Jeff Nielsen's Everest Stable. Canani said he will start Everest runners in three weekend stakes races before leaving for Bowie - Island Fashion in the Delaware Oaks at Delaware Park on Saturday; Shapes and Shadows in the Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont Park on Sunday; and Night Patrol in the Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park on Sunday.

"[Nielsen] has been great, he's given me fantastic horses," Canani said. The Everest runners are likely to be distributed to trainers Terry Knight and Dallas Keen. Canani's father is Southern California veteran Julio Canani. During his 11-year training career, the younger Canani has won 121 races and $5.4 million from 699 starters. This year, he has won eight races and $575,518 from 57 runners.

Canani said he will probably return to California some day, emphasizing that field size and the increasing cost of doing business were contributing factors in his decision to leave. "I never thought I would leave, but California needs to realize how deep they're burying horse racing," he said. "California is running the smaller guys out. You're betting on five- and six-horse fields. It's hard on the gamblers, the owners, and the trainers. I think it's time. And I don't think I'm the only one looking [to leave]."

Azeri vs. Congaree? Forget it

A proposed match race at Del Mar between Azeri and Congaree did not go beyond the stage of wishful thinking. Trainers Laura de Seroux and Bob Baffert said track representatives recently inquired about the possibility of a match race at 1 1/16 miles.

"That drew an immediate negative response from our end," de Seroux said Tuesday. "Why? Because I think it's an absurd idea, and certainly not with Congaree."

Azeri worked a half-mile Monday at San Luis Rey Downs, and de Seroux said three races remain options for the defending Horse of the Year - the Whitney at Saratoga Aug. 2, the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar on Aug. 3, and Clement Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar on Aug. 10. De Seroux said the goal was the Breeders' Cup Distaff, to be run Oct. 25 at Santa Anita.

"My main concern is to win the Breeders' Cup," she said, "and if we feel we still have to make a statement, then maybe you take on the boys in the Clark Handicap [in late fall at Churchill Downs], but not before the Breeders' Cup." De Seroux added that Azeri's owner, Michael Paulson, wants to keep an "open mind" and consider the Whitney.

Congaree emerged in good shape from his Hollywood Gold Cup victory, and Baffert said Tuesday, "I'm going to let Congaree tell me when to run." He added, "A match race with Azeri would be great . . . we'll give her a shot."