01/07/2003 1:00AM

Shuman and Gill: Gulf's hottest team

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LAS VEGAS - Now that Calder's draining, dozen-race days are done, the new year can finally begin in earnest at Gulfstream Park. It's always an exciting, invigorating prospect. Until they run the first day's races. That's all it takes to remind you: Gulfstream is tough, very tough.

The first two races on opening day contained another valuable reminder: Gulfstream is very much a "people" game - especially in the first two weeks or so. The first race was won by Barbara Pirie, a Canadian trainer who in recent years has been a key person to watch in south Florida. In the second race, high-percentage trainer Peter Walder missed only by a neck because a Calder runner jumped up to run a big lifetime best. Both Pirie and Walder were heavily bet, which nearly always has been the case with their live horses in the past few years.

The Kentucky trainers are also off to a fast start. In the first three days of the meeting, Kentucky-based trainers won 11 out of 32 races. Dale Romans had three winners on Saturday, including the Appleton with Point Prince, and Anthony Reinstedler had two. John Hennig, Niall O'Callaghan, Stephen Margolis, Steve Asmussen, Rick Hiles, and John Ward each had one winner. New-York based Todd Pletcher also started quickly, with two big winners on Saturday, Indy Dancer and Lion Tamer, who both look like potential killers. Lion Tamer was particularly impressive, making a big move on the turn after breaking slowly and absolutely annihilating an allowance field. His Beyer Speed Figure improved to 95.

But the biggest buzz by far surrounds the combination of trainer Mark Shuman and owner Michael Gill. If you don't follow the Delaware Park races you might not be familiar with this operation. Suffice to say that they are a racing secretary's dream. They have dozens and dozens of horses, and they run them as often as possible. They only missed running 500 starters at Delaware because of cancellations in the final days of that meeting.

At Gulfstream, Shuman and Gill picked up right where they left off in the mid-Atlantic. In the first three days they ran 18 horses. With most of these runners coming off refreshing layoffs of six to seven weeks, their results have been strong. Out of those 18 starters they've already had 5 winners, 4 seconds, and 5 thirds. That's a far better record than Shuman and Gill had at Delaware, where they generally performed in the 14-percent range.

A closer look at the Shuman and Gill horses highlights two obvious trends. First, their horses are ready. Second, Shuman and Gill want to win races and will drop horses in order to do it. In fact, Shuman-Gill's first three winners at Gulfstream were drop-downs. Lively Prospect dropped from $25,000 to $14,000. Native Two Stepper dropped from $40,000 to $25,000. Casual Conflict dropped slightly from $25,000 to $18,000.

Lively Prospect benefited from a good trip and improved slightly to a lifetime-best Beyer Speed Figure of 89. Native Two Stepper approached his lifetime best with a 92. But Casual Conflict actually regressed to a 75 Beyer. Clearly, they were all well-placed to win.

Only four of their first 18 starters ran poorly, and a number of others had tough trips which cost them possible wins. Choctaw Ridge, for example, had to steady slightly a number of times and could have won the seventh race on Saturday. In the very next race, Out of Fashion broke slowly, made a few moves to get into the race, but had to settle for third behind a perfect-trip winner. In the ninth race, Skip a Grade was hung out four wide on both turns and ran very well to finish third, beaten by only one length.

Sunday, there were some truly remarkable performances by Shuman-Gill horses. In the second race, Tactical Punch had a brutal trip and finished a distant third. He could have been much closer. Highway Prospector spent the entire turn in the four and five paths and closed to win anyway. His stablemate, Bobby's Buckaroo, set the pace in that same race and finished second.

In the ninth race, Boston Brat set a wild pace (a half in 43.82 seconds, a full second faster than any other half-mile during the first three days) and only surrendered in the last few yards to Deer Lake, who ran a huge Beyer of 108.

So, with better racing luck Shuman-Gill could have won a few more races in the early days at Gulfstream. But a careful look at the Beyer Speed Figures for their 18 horses puts it all into a more useful perspective:

* Four of these horses ran lower Beyers than their general performances at Delaware - two of them much lower.

* Three of them ran much higher Beyers.

* Eleven out of the 18 ran in the same general Beyer range.

So you might tentatively conclude that, for the most part, these horses are not performing way beyond their previous efforts, and that you can expect the Shuman-Gill starters to run about the same level of Beyer Speed Figures that they were running at Delaware in the fall.

That parade of runners should maintain its steady flow throughout the Gulfstream meeting. Shuman-Gill claimed eight horses in the final eight days at Calder, and they have already claimed six horses in the first three days at Gulfstream. So they're clearly ready to match the frantic pace they set at Delaware earlier this year.

Perhaps the race books here in Vegas could offer a special prop bet - an over/under on the number of Shuman-Gill starters by the time of the Florida Derby March 15. Based on a reasonable projection of four to five runners per day, that would make the number somewhere between 250 and 300.

I'm thinking I would take the over.