11/12/2001 1:00AM

Unite's Big Red last in return; owners unfazed

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MIAMI - The much-anticipated return of Unite's Big Red ended in disappointment on Monday when he did not beat a horse in his first start in 21 months.

Unite's Big Red, whose career has been plagued by foot problems, had been idle since finishing fifth in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap in February 2000.

A son of Unite owned by Randy and Linda Mills's Breakaway Racing Stable, Unite's Big Red won Gulfstream's Grade 2 Pan American Handicap in 1999 and finished third behind Yagli in the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup.

Unite's Big Red raced wide around both turns in his failed comeback, finishing seventh of seven, more than 10 lengths behind American Halo, the upset winner of the one-mile turf allowance. But his owners were not discouraged despite the somewhat lackluster performance.

"Naturally we'd have like to have seen him run a little better, but he definitely needed a race and now he got one," said Randy Mills, who earlier this season turned the training duties for his entire stable over to former assistant Gary Cortolillo.

"He's the kind of horse who needs to race himself fit. He doesn't work hard or get to serious in the morning. So if he comes out of this race in good shape we'll run him back in the Tropical Park Turf Handicap," a Grade 3 on Dec. 8.

Steamboat looking good

While Unite's Big Red may have needed a race off the bench, his younger brother Steamboat did not, finishing a game second under preliminary optional claiming and allowance conditions in his first start since Jan. 27.

"He got really sick on us with a horrible lung infection at Gulfstream," explained Mills. "In fact we thought we were going to lose him for a while and he lost several hundred pounds before finally recovering."

American Halo: No summer soldier

While Unite's Big Red was not at his best on Monday, American Halo certainly was. The victory was his first on grass and his first over any surface since he upset Vision and Verse and Pleasant Breeze in Gulfstream Park's Grade 3 Skip Away Handicap in his 2001 debut.

"He's back!" exclaimed an ecstatic Angel Medina, who trains American Halo for Jose Paparoni.

"This horse just doesn't run well in the summer because he doesn't sweat," Medina explained. "But today was a bit cooler and the wind was blowing. He was on his toes in the paddock, and I knew he was going to run a big race. Even though he didn't hit the board in either of his two previous starts on the grass, he was beaten only a couple of heads for second money the last time, so I know he can handle the turf. He proved last winter when he beat Sir Bear here in the Hooper Handicap, and then won the Skip Away, that when he's right he's one of, if not the, best horse on the grounds."

Medina said if American Halo comes out of the race in good shape he will wheel him right back in Sunday's $35,000 King Rex Handicap, where the competition could include Hal's Hope, Dancing Guy, and perhaps Best of the Rest if he does not go to the Cigar Mile the following week.