01/14/2002 1:00AM

Sir Bear gives crowd their money's worth

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - They gave themselves away.

The 16,000 fans at Gulfstream on hand at Gulfstream last Saturday hammered Red Bullet down to even money in the $100,000 Skip Away Handicap and were not very enthusiastic over the chances of Sir Bear, a hero of yesteryear whose form this past season was moderate at best. But when the 9-year-old Sir Bear, at 9-1, raged up through the stretch to catch and pass Red Bullet, the stands erupted with applause. Racing audiences are popularly held to be guided by dollars-and-cents philosophy, but in fact they are no match for a sentimental story like this one.

The spotlight was on Red Bullet, rousing winner of the Preakness in 2000, who was sidelined by an illness for a year and made his way back to competition this past fall. He trained well here this winter, and while trainer Joe Orseno acknowledged that he is not at his peak as yet, Orseno expressed confidence that Red Bullet would give a good account of himself. He did, taking the lead near the eighth pole, apparently on his way to a smashing victory. But Sir Bear, skillfully ridden off the pace by Edgar Prado, snatched the victory away with a late thrust.

"This was a remarkable victory," trainer Ralph Ziadie commented Monday. "I'm aware that John Henry was voted Horse of the Year when he was a 9-year-old, but he was basically a grass horse, and the turf is easier on horses than the dirt. Not many 9-year-old horses win good stakes on the dirt, but then Sir Bear has done the unusual frequently throughout his career."

Ziadie said that he was concerned when Eibar Coa, who was to ride Sir Bear, was delayed in returning from a trip to Saudi Arabia. Ziadie, as an alternative, wanted a jockey who had ridden his horse before. Unable to do this, he selected Prado and was delighted to receive an outstanding performance. Ziadie went into the Skip Away with some confidence, however. Sir Bear has always shown a fondness for the Gulfstream racing strip. The Sir Leon gelding won two runnings of the Skip Away at a time when the stakes was known as the Broward Handicap. He also won the Gulfstream Park Handicap last year. In contrast, he is not very effective over the Calder track, which is where he is stabled all year and where he does the bulk of his training. He prepped for the Skip Away with a couple of appearances at Calder in the fall, but did not distinguish himself in either race. That form tended to raise his price in the Skip Away but Ziadie thought he did well and got some value out of those appearances.

Sir Bear, who was notching his 19th victory from 64 starts in the Skip Away, increased his career earnings to $2,466,960 for his owners and breeders, Al and Barbara Smollin. He came out of the Skip Away in good order and is now regarded as a possibility for the $500,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream on Feb. 9 and as a probability for the $300,000 Gulfstrean Park Handicap on March 30.

As for Red Bullet, he got a good race that he needed in the Skip Away and can now be expected to be a strong contender in the Donn.

Another horse with a decided affinity for the Gulfstream strip also won here over the weekend. That was Chester and Mary Broman's Hook and Ladder, who stalked the pace in Sunday's Mr. Prospector Handicap and finished full of run to win convincingly by more than three lengths.

Hook and Ladder, a 5-year-old horse by Dixieland Band, has been bothered for much of his career by foot problems. Because of this problem, John Kimmel trains him at Payson Park near Palm Beach, which has a deep and safe surface that takes less out of him than training at a typical racetrack and is credited by Kimmel for Hook and Ladder's good form at Gulfstream. Last winter, Hook and Ladder won three races during the Gulfstream meet, including the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Championship Handicap, and had excellent Beyer Speed Figures in all three events.

Hook and Ladder was purchased by the Bromans for $800,000 out of the dispersal of breeder Marshall Naify as a 3-year-old. He won his first start for his new owners at Saratoga during the 2000 season but caught an unusually strong field in Belmont Park's Jerome Handicap, where he finished behind Fusaichi Pegasus, El Corredor, and Albert the Great. He developed a quarter crack last spring, returned to competition at Saratoga, and ran a strong second in the Forest Hills Handicap at Belmont Park in early October. Racing wide, he had no chance in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, but had trained well at Payson Park in preparation for the Mr. Prospector.

Nicely placed just off the pace by John Velazquez, Hook and Ladder looked very strong in his win Sunday. Kimmel, who will now be faced with a decision whether to remain at Gulfstream for the $100,000 Deputy Minister Handicap on Feb. 10 and the $200,000 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Sprint on March 9 or go to Dubai for the $2 million Golden Shaheen Stakes at six furlongs that is part of Dubai World Cup Day on March 23.