06/12/2002 11:00PM

Rusty Spur brings confidence into Wilmington

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Five of the 10 sprinters in Saturday's $100,000 Wilmington Handicap at Delaware Park have recorded a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure within their last three starts. Handicappers must decide whether they should favor pure speed or a horse who likes to wait for the pace to collapse.

The battle for the early lead in the six-furlong Wilmington figures to be fought among Rusty Spur, True Passion, and He's a Knockout.

Rusty Spur regained some confidence lost with three straight poor breaks out of the gate when he went wire to wire in a minor stakes at Delaware on June 3, earning a 104 Beyer. He loses regular rider Ramon Dominguez, however, to He's a Knockout.

The 4-year-old He's a Knockout was no match for Snow Ridge in the Grade 3 Maryland Breeders' Cup Handicap on the Preakness undercard, but he was sharp enough in Florida to win the Artax with a 102 Beyer. He prepped for the Wilmington with a best-of-30 five-furlong work last weekend.

True Passion brings a four-race winning streak into the Wilmington, including a career-best 106 Beyer two starts ago. He will be making his stakes debut.

If the speed horses duel each other into submission, it could perfectly set things up for either Stormin Oedy or Deer Run.

Stormin Oedy returns on two weeks' rest after using a six-wide move to take the $150,000 J.B. Moseley Breeders' Cup Handicap at Suffolk Downs. He has never been sharper, posting back-to-back Beyers of 101 and 100 in his last two starts.

Deer Run is 4 for 5 this season, including beating Stormin Oedy by a half-length in Maryland. In his lone defeat this year, Deer Run finished second to Rusty Spur over a wet-fast track, but still earned a career-high 104 Beyer.

Shuman's quantum leap

A year ago, Mark Shuman had just a half-dozen horses in his barn and won six races all season. His stable now consists of 40 horses and an additional 30 head on a farm. Plus there's a constant flow of new arrivals via the claiming box.

Thanks to his new arsenal, Shuman has become the leading trainer at Delaware Park. Through Wednesday, Shuman has 17 winners at the meet, two ahead of Tim Ritchey.

How did Shuman, 31, make such a quantum leap so quickly? He accepted an offer to train for one of the most active and successful Thoroughbred owners in the nation.

Shuman's big break came late last fall when he agreed to train a string of horses in the Mid-Atlantic region for Mike Gill. Two years ago, Gill ranked third nationally in wins with 205 and 12th in earnings with $2.99 million. Last season, Gill ranked fifth in wins with 133 and 13th in earnings with $2.83 million.

Shuman admits it was the offer of a lifetime. Incredibly, he initially turned Gill down.

"At first I told him no, because I have a house in Florida and I really liked training just a couple of horses," said Shuman. "I thought about it for two hours and realized what I had done. I turned down the leading owner in the country. I looked at the stable I had and realized it was a stupid decision."

Shuman quickly called back Gill, made a few more phone checks with colleagues he respected, and then took the offer.

Shuman knew that he would be training many more horses than he was accustomed to, but the operation has gotten even bigger than he expected. Still, he loves the job and his relationship with Gill, who is actively involved in deciding which horses to claim.

"Mike takes the pressure off the trainer as far as being responsible for claims," Shuman said. "He wants my feedback about claims, but he usually makes the final decision. It really is a team effort. I do spend a lot of time on the phone with him, but it works for me and he is a great person to train for."

Shuman got interested in racing from his father, Joe Shuman, a trainer in Ohio. Abandoning plans to become a veterinarian, he went to work for his father for about a year, then tried his luck in New York, where he served stints under trainers Tom Skiffington, Howie Tesher, and James Bond.

"For Bond, I was at Payson Park for six months and Saratoga for six months," Shuman said. "That was really a good experience and fun because you got away from the racetrack and you could really enjoy the horses. Through all of those experiences, I learned a lot about this game."

Shuman returned to Ohio in March 2000 to train while his father was battling colon cancer. After his father recovered, the younger Shuman went out on his own with his small string of horses, first in Florida and then at Delaware Park.

"I had a very trying year here last year," he admitted. "It was difficult at times."

Then his blacksmith made a phone call on Shuman's behalf to Gill.

"My blacksmith, Bruce McCuan, mentioned to me that Mr. Gill might be looking for a trainer in Florida," said Shuman. "He called Gill and put in a good a word for me. Gill was going to claim a couple of horses and send them to me in Florida with the possibility of coming to Delaware."

And that, to paraphrase the closing line from "Casablanca," was the beginning of a beautiful business deal.