01/04/2002 1:00AM

Top older horses set for Skip Away


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla - The older handicap division is stacked here this winter, and several of the big horses will launch their campaigns in next Saturday's $100,000 Skip Away Handicap.

Among the prospective starters for the Grade 3 Skip Away are 2000 Preakness winner Red Bullet, who ended his abbreviated 2001 season with a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile; Traditionally, winner of the Grade 1 Oaklawn Handicap; and Sir Bear, a multiple Grade 1 winner including the 2001 Gulfstream Park Handicap.

Other prominent nominees to the Skip Away are Hal's Hope, Ubiquity, Rize, and Trajectory. Rize and Trajectory were both entered in Saturday's Appleton Handicap for turf only and their connections said the Skip Away would likely be the alternative if the Appleton remained on the turf.

Horse of beauty is a joy for now

Another horse who may impact the handicap division before meet's end is *.

Winless since upsetting the Grade 2 Lexington Handicap on April 21, Keats launched his 4-year-old campaign with an easy 10-length victory over four overmatched allowance rivals in Friday's seventh race.

"That was the old Keats," said trainer Niall O'Callaghan. "He grabbed a quarter severely in the Kentucky Derby and might have knocked himself out a bit chasing Squirrel Squirt in his first start back in the King's Bishop. Then he came up with an ulcer in his throat that affected him for a few races. But being back at Payson seems to have done him a lot of good, and today's win should be a major confidence booster."

O'Callaghan said the Grade 1 Donn Handicap could be on the agenda for Keats "at the right weight."

Fight for Love back at Gulfstream at 12

As the winner of the 1995 Broward Handicap, Fight for Love shares a page in the Gulfstream Park media guide with the likes of Swaps, Technology, Devil His Due, and Sir Bear.

He is a long way from running in graded stakes, but Fight for Love, now aged 12, returns to Florida for the first time in three years when he runs Sunday in a low-level claiming race at six furlongs. It will be the 93rd start of Fight for Love's career and the 20th at Gulfstream.

Eddie Miller, a New York-based trainer, has followed Fight for Love for years and is the gelding's owner and trainer. He worked for Howie Tesher when owners Irv and Marjorie Cowan gave the horse to Tesher following trainer Bert Sonnier's retirement in the spring of 1999. Miller unsuccessfully tried to buy the horse and Fight for Love was claimed by Richard Dutrow Jr. in May 1999.

Miller claimed the horse for $20,000 that August, and after giving him a freshening, won with him for $22,500 on Oct. 7, 1999. Fight for Love would lose his next 15 starts before taking an $18,000 claimer at Belmont on Oct. 6, 2001.

Fight for Love last ran on Nov. 4, finishing third for the same price at Aqueduct. Sunday, he will run for $18,000.

"He's got problems, obviously, but he has a desire to run," Miller said. "He just can't go 44-and-change and keep on going anymore."

Although by racing standards he is an old man, Fight for Love "is acting like he's back in college," Miller said. "The warm weather seemed to help him. This is his home field. I think the fans will like to see him again."

Fight for Love won his maiden at first asking on Aug. 29, 1992, at Calder when trained by Manny Tortora. Miller pointed out that Terry Meyocks, the current president of the New York Racing Association, was Calder's racing secretary at that time.

On Sunday, Fight for Love will face a tough task when he meets six horses, several taking class drops. Jeremy Beasley, who was aboard for the gelding's victory in 1999, will ride Fight for Love on Sunday.

Tagg plans waylaid by rain

Trainer Barclay Tagg was a victim of the weather during the opening two days of the meet when forced to scratch The Director and Sandra's Song from Thursday and Friday's programs after both their races were taken off the turf.

Tagg is particularly high on The Director, a 4-year-old son of Mr Purple and a half-brother to turf stakes winner Drama Critic. The Director finished a troubled fifth launching his career in August then returned three months later at Aqueduct and exploded from off the pace for a three-length victory over maiden allowance company. Both his starts were on the grass.

"I've always thought he had a lot of talent and would turn out to be a decent horse, but he's had a lot of problems and I've had to stop on him a couple of times along the way," said Tagg shortly after sending The Director out to work five furlongs in 1:03 seconds on Friday. "He was still very green the first couple of times I ran him. In his last start it looked like he got into the stretch, realized he still had the wire to get to and then just seemed to take off again."

Tagg, like many of his colleagues, is feeling the stall crunch brought about by the closing of the Hialeah barn area this winter.

"I applied for 30, would have been satisfied to get the same 16 I had last year, and wound up with only 10," said Tagg. "As a result I had to hire another assistant to keep a string in New York. This is the first year I've ever kept horses up there during the winter."

Tagg's colleague Chuck Simon was singing a similar tune.

"I had 30 at Hialeah last winter and I've got 14 here this year," said Simon, who also has 24 bedded down at the Fair Grounds and six in New York. "It's more of an inconvenience than anything and not a big deal right now. The problem really comes later this winter when I'd be getting my 2-year-olds in. Gulfstream is not a good place for a young horse to learn and develop because of all the traffic on the racetrack in the morning. So now they'll have to stay in Ocala a little longer, which will push my schedule back getting them to the races."

Simon is high on a pair of 3-year-olds in his barn, Man of Destiny and Everything to Gain. Man of Destiny stretched out around two turns and added blinkers for the first time for a one-length victory in his 2-year-old finale. Everything to Gain is winless in five starts but finished second under allowance conditions to the multiple stakes winner Political Attack.

Lavoy off to good start

On her first day riding in nearly two months, jockey Rachel Lavoy found the winner's circle in Thursday's nightcap, rallying Catlike Move to a neck victory in a $45,000 claiming race. She finished fifth in her only other mount.

Lavoy is trying to prove to horsemen that she is fully recovered from shoulder surgery she underwent about a year ago. She was sidelined for nearly six months before returning to ride at Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands where she won 21 races from 280 mounts.

Lavoy, 23, said she her shoulder feels "perfect. Never better."

Lavoy does not have an agent and said she will ride primarily for John Forbes, for whom she was under contract while serving her apprentice. She hopes to make the most of what figures to be limited opportunities and build up momentum for this summer's Monmouth meeting.

"A lot of Jersey people come here and if I win some races people might see that," Lavoy said. "I had a pretty good Monmouth and Meadowlands for losing the bug."

Forbes said he would probably ride Lavoy on 25 percent of his horses at this meet.

Velasquez goes 3 for 4

Cornelio Velasquez, the leading rider at both the Calder and Tropical-at-Calder meets, won three races from four mounts on Friday's Gulfstream card. Velasquez's three winners came on identical rides as he rallied Master Pretty ($20.80), Angela's Tune ($17.40), and Innate ($14.20) to last-jump victories.

Velasquez's only other mount on the card, Silver Bandana, finished a hard-charging third in the $100,000 Honey Fox Handicap.

- additional reporting by David Grening

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