10/19/2001 12:00AM

'Sandy' at threshold of earnings record

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Sunday's $125,000 Hudson Handicap at Belmont Park seems a rather unlikely place for history to be made, but this race could very well be the spot where Say Florida Sandy becomes the all-time leading New York-bred in money won.

Say Florida Sandy will be the heavy favorite in the Hudson, one of seven stakes for statebreds run during the New York Showcase Fall Festival, on Saturday and Sunday.

Say Florida Sandy, a 7-year-old with $1,725,926 in earnings, is a mere $250 shy of surpassing the leading New York-bred money earner, L'Carriere, for the top spot. A fifth-place or better finish in the six-furlong Hudson will do the trick for Say Florida Sandy, who is owned by John Rotella.

By comparison, Win, the first New York-bred to reach millionaire status, in 1985, raced 44 times, with 14 wins. Say Florida Sandy will make his 77th career start in the Hudson, in search of win No. 29.

L'Carriere, a winner of eight races, only started 23 times. Much of L'Carriere's earnings were accumulated competing in Grade 1 races, where he finished second and third on several occasions, including his runner-up finish in the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic to the mighty Cigar and a second in his final career start, the Grade 1 Woodward in 1996. He also finished third behind Cigar in the first running of the rich Dubai World Cup.

Until this year, Say Florida Sandy mainly competed in non-graded stakes, where he has had a great deal of success. Occasionally, \ Sandy did appear in top company, including his initial win in a graded event, the Grade 3 Gravesend Handicap in December 1998.

This season, the majority of Sandy's 12 starts have come in graded races. Overall, he has won five stakes, including the Grade 2 True North, Grade 3 Bold Ruler, and Grade 3 Philadelphia Breeders' Cup. In his first Grade 1 appearance, Say Florida Sandy was second in the Carter Handicap in May. In his most recent start, he was fourth in the Grade 1 Vosburgh on Sept. 22.

Rotella said some people may downplay Say Florida Sandy's achievements because it has taken his horse at least 77 races to accomplish what other horses did in fewer starts.

"I think it's a hell of an accomplishment and hopefully other people do too," Rotella said. "I think it's important - especially for a sprinter to have run over 70 times. How many horses have that endurance? But there will be people who say, Sandy didn't do it in Grade 1 races and it took him 77 races."

Say Florida Sandy has been a Cinderella story for Rotella, who owns a scrap metal business in New Jersey. Rotella, 53, claimed Say Florida Sandy for $60,000 off trainer Gasper Moschera in February 1998 and gave the horse to Juan Serey to train. Several races before the claim, Say Florida Sandy, a son of Personal Flag, was claimed by Moschera from the horse's breeder, Sanford Bacon, for $70,000.

Rotella recalls not being hugely impressed by Say Florida Sandy when Serey suggested they claim the horse on a cold winter's day at Aqueduct. At the time, Say Florida Sandy, who had just turned 4, was a winner of seven races, including four restricted stakes.

"There was absolutely nothing I liked about him," Rotella said. "His races were not that impressive and he looked like a typical 3-year-old who couldn't develop into a [good] older horse. I didn't really want to claim him, but Juan brought me into the tunnel at Aqueduct and said, 'look at him.' I looked at him, and saw a horse. What do I know?"

Still, Rotella, who followed his father as an owner into this business in 1990, put his trust into Serey, who has proven time and again to be an excellent judge of claimers.

Say Florida Sandy won eight races for Rotella and Serey in the first season after the claim, including the Gravesend, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Rotella admits to pestering Serey for daily updates on Say Florida Sandy, who has won three New York-bred championships titles.

"I call and say, 'How is the champion?' " Rotella said. "My family and I sit around and talk about Sandy like he's sitting at the kitchen table with us. I admit, sometimes I even get tired of listening to myself talk about him."

Rotella said he has turned down several tempting offers to sell Say Florida Sandy for stud duty. Not only is Rotella attached to the horse, but he said it just doesn't make good business sense to sell Sandy when he's at the top of his game.

This year alone, Sandy has won $568,801 in purse money, plus an additional $81,238 in owner awards for Rotella. The owner awards, which are distributed by the New York State Breeding and Development Fund, are doled out to owners whose New York-breds finish first through fourth in open races with at least a $30,000 claiming value. The bonus is 20 percent of the purse earnings, with a $20,000 cap per horse, per race. The owners awards are not reflected in a horse's earnings.

Since claiming Sandy, Rotella has earned $130,779 in owner awards.

"The offers I had were in the area of what he has earned so far this year," Rotella said. "He's worth more on the racetrack, dollar for dollar.

"Sandy is a racehorse and he still likes to compete," Rotella added. "I'm going to run him as long as he wants to run. It's fun to have a horse like him."

Especially a horse who is on the brink of making history.