10/15/2003 11:00PM

To owners, Gander still the big horse


ELMONT, N.Y. - As dusk set upon Belmont Park last year on New York Showcase Day, a ghost-like image flashed across the stretch. It was Gander, with his distinctive whitish-gray coat, on his way to winning his second Empire Classic.

Gander, who has been one of the most popular New York-breds since his arrival as a 2-year-old in August 1998, will shoot for another Empire Classic win on Saturday at Belmont Park. He won his first Empire Classic in 1999.

With the emergence of Funny Cide, this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, New York's breeding and racing program has a new hero. But in the hearts of the Gander camp, their 7-year-old gelding will always be No. 1.

Mike Gatsas and his brother, Ted, a New Hampshire state senator, bought Gander for $50,000 out of an Ocala Breeders' Sales Company 2-year-old in training sale. It was their first purchase as owners.

Bred by Angela Rugnetta, Gander has earned $1,699,050 and has a record of 14-9-8 in 53 starts. He has won numerous New York-bred championships, including horse of the year in 2000, and is the fourth richest New York-bred in history.

"He was not only a bargain, but he has meant so much to our family," said Mike Gatsas, 51. "He has been so much fun to be around. He's the type of the horse that just shows up to go to work every day and never lets you down, no matter where you put him. And there have been some places we have put him that weren't for the faint of heart."

A son of Cormorant out of Lovely Nurse, Gander has competed in nine Grade 1's in his career, including the Breeders' Cup Classic in 2000 and 2001. He finished ninth both years, but has had good showings against Grade 1 company, including a second in the 2000 Jockey Club Gold Cup and a third in the 2000 Woodward. Gander scored his only graded win in the Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup in 2001.

Since July 2000, Gander has been trained by John Terranova II, who today trains 23 horses for the Gatsas brothers. The relationship began when Gander's former trainer, the New England-based Charles Assimakopoulos, told the Gatsas brothers that Gander deserved to be trained and campaigned in New York. So Mike Gatsas and his son Matthew interviewed several trainers before hiring Terranova.

"Gander is the king of kings in this barn," said Terranova, who also trained Shadow Caster, the 2000 Forego winner, for the Gatsas brothers. "He's been the big horse for awhile and he's got seniority on everybody. He has given us some very big thrills and it's cool to have a horse that everyone recognizes."

For much of this year, Gander was bothered by a sore stifle, which, Terranova said, is now under control. In his last start Sept. 14, Gander won an allowance race by a neck for his seventh win in 20 starts at Belmont Park.

"This year has been a little lean, but he hasn't lost a step from age," Terranova said. "He's a warrior and I think people respect that he has stuck around for so many years."