05/14/2008 11:00PM

Owner Gill returns with a new plan


EAST BOSTON, Mass. - The roller coaster ride of Michael Gill is ready to take off again, as the 2005 Eclipse Award-winning owner relaunches his operation this year at Suffolk Downs.

Gill, 51, a New Hampshire native, went through a tumultuous decade in the sport. Within a year of getting involved with racing, the man who grew up sneaking into Rockingham Park was training his own horses only to be handed a three-year suspension when a barn search turned up syringes.

After serving his time, he stormed back onto the scene as an owner with an aggressive claiming strategy, and over the ensuing years smashed records for wins while acquiring more than 400 horses across the country.

Gill's aggressive tactics rankled track managers and fellow horsemen. He and his private trainer at the time, Mark Shuman, obliterated a longstanding record at Gulfstream Park with 87 wins in 2002, but encountered controversy when a horse of theirs broke down and their veterinarian had the animal's leg amputated before officials could perform a necropsy. Soon tracks were refusing to allocate stalls to Gill and his trainers.

"I wouldn't play by their rules," said Gill. "About 20 horsemen would get together and say, 'Get rid of the guy.' The tracks would rather have the 20 guys than the one, even when the one was running and filling all the races."

He responded by building his own training center in Oxford, Pa., and continued to rack up wins, often by claiming horses for a high price and running them back for lower tags. In 2004 he won 487 races and his horses earned more than $10 million, but his high costs kept even those huge numbers unworkable. Throw in what he considers the snubs he got from Eclipse voters in 2003 and 2004 and Gill nearly scrapped it all. Ironically, after announcing he was scaling back the operation, he won the 2005 Eclipse.

"I do take pride in that," said Gill. "To put up the kind of numbers we did only to get ignored . . . but then, in the face of all the adversity, [winning] gave me some justification."

After two years racing primarily in Maryland with a fraction of the horses he used to run, Gill and his current trainer Gamaliel Vazquez are looking to build again, starting with this season at Suffolk.

"We're condensing everything and getting back to basics," Gill said. "I've got a similar business plan, but I'm creating a situation where we cover our expenses better. Gammy's payroll is based on performance. We've got Norberto Arroyo riding first call for us. I've had long talks with both of them and if we can stick to this plan, there's no reason we can't be back where we were in just six months and see if we can't take off again."

If Gill encounters the same resistance as he did five years ago, he is prepared.

"If they want to give me a black hat, I'm open to it," he said. "I'm not kissing anyone's butt, and I'm not playing games. I'm way smarter than I was when I first came around Suffolk, and we're capable of creating a monster."

Vazquez and Gill have won with 4 of their 11 starters at Suffolk entering Saturday, with 3 seconds.