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Updated on 09/17/2011 10:51AM
Winning - the Gill way
HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - It may seem to Gulfstream Park fans that owner Mike Gill and trainer Mark Shuman appeared out of nowhere this winter to become the hottest items in the game. Actually, both have been involved in racing for years, although never with this level of success.
By volume and percentage, their numbers are dwarfing the highly reputable stables that annually come south. Through Monday, Gill and Shuman had teamed to win 31 races from 96 starters; the next-highest win total among trainers is eight, shared by three men.
Even more remarkable, this is essentially the first Gulfstream meet for both. Gill, 47, said in a recent interview from his office in New Hampshire that he preferred not to run at a highly visible meet like Gulfstream's until he "did it the right way."
The Gill way is to overwhelm the competition with numbers, to claim with abandon, and to run horses where and when they figure to be solid favorites.
The Gill way has been to claim 70 horses for more than $2.1 million since the stable's arrival in Florida in mid-December.
The Gill way has been to maximize the potential of racehorses such as Boston Brat, Highway Prospector, and Cara's Lassie. Boston Brat, a former low-level claimer, has been sensational, setting a Gulfstream record for five furlongs and equaling the track record for 5 1/2 furlongs. Highway Prospector and Cara's Lassie both have won twice at the meet.
To be sure, the Gill way has gone something like this: I will run my horses wherever I want and I will claim your horse if I feel like it - and just what are you going to do about it?
As quickly as Gill and Shuman have taken Gulfstream by storm, their success has been questioned in light of their suspensions for medication violations in recent years. When discussing Gill and Shuman's success, rival trainers and some racing fans invariably use words such as "juice" and "hop." Gill and Shuman say such accusations are ridiculous.
"Sure I know what people are saying," said Shuman, 32. "They don't say it to my face, but I have friends who tell me what's going on. We are doing everything above board."
Gill also is aware of the backstretch talk.
"Am I using something?" he asked. "Yeah, I'm using something: common sense. I've got a two-prong theory about this game: Put your horses where they can win, and intimidate the other guy about where he'll put his. I want them to think of me when they're putting their horses in the entry box. From that, of course, you're going to get natural resentment and people pointing fingers."
Shuman, a trainer's son who began working for Gill in November of 2001, is often amazed by the grand scale on which Gill operates. "There should be a book written about his life," said Shuman. "He's gone through so much, it's unbelievable."
Gill said he bought and sold businesses to become a millionaire by 21, then "went broke" soon thereafter. "I was a millionaire again at 33 but went broke a second time," he said. Gill said he got into the mortgage business after that. His company, Mortgage Specialists, is licensed in Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.
His involvement in racing began on a small scale in New England in the mid-1980's. His financial troubles forced him out for several years, but he got back in the game in the mid-1990's. He made headlines in New England in the summer of 1995 soon after he fired trainer Edwin Vazquez Sr. and took out a trainer's license in New Hampshire.
The first horse that ran under his name, Sunshine Ivory, won at Rockingham Park on July 24, 1995, but later tested positive for Clenbuterol, a bronchial dilator. At the time, Clenbuterol was banned in every jurisdiction, but now is legal, within certain parameters, in many states. Following a search of his barn, Gill was suspended by the New Hampshire Parimutuel Commission for three years for the presence of injectable drugs and hypodermic syringes.
Gill has always maintained that he was set up.
"I wasn't even at Rockingham that day," he said. "I mean, my first horse? And no bad tests before that?
"It was an opening for someone. When I fired my trainer, I left myself vulnerable. When you're buying all the horses, you can make a lot of enemies. Having a horse in any barn area is like having a safe with the door open 24 hours a day."
Embittered by how the Rockingham incident tainted his reputation, Gill said he seriously thought about "never coming back, but then I thought that when I come back, I'm going to come back like I have." He was granted owner's licenses in several states in 2000 and has not been in serious trouble since.
Gill said he owns about 200 horses, including breeding stock and horses too young to race. His two main bases are in Maryland, where he has about 75 horses, mostly with trainer John "Jerry" Robb, and in south Florida, where Shuman has about 70 split between Gulfstream and the Palm Meadows training center.
Clearly, owning such an operation is expensive, but Gill said he can afford it. "Sure it's expensive to maintain, but you maintain it by doing what we've been doing," he said. Through Monday, his horses had earned slightly more than $580,000 at the meet, a small portion of what he has spent on new claims, training fees, and a wide assortment of other expenses.
Gill said he employs no hard-and-fast method, such as speed-figure sheets, for claiming horses. "We try to see if there's something we can improve on," he said. "Sometimes I feel like we're a couple of vultures flying around, waiting for someone to do something wrong."
Gill pointed to Stormin Cherokee as a prime example of how he and Shuman approach the claim game. Stormin Cherokee, who had been running mostly in turf routes, was claimed for $32,000 in December at Calder, then ran back for $35,000 in a main-track sprint on Jan. 22 at Gulfstream. He won easily.
"The horse had an ulcer in his mouth the size of a golf ball," said Gill. "You could see the way he was holding his head; he almost went over the hedge in his last race. I said, 'Mark, check his mouth, and let's put blinkers on him.' "
Gill said Stormin Cherokee underwent a myectomy, a minor throat operation that is commonly used to improve a horse's breathing. "I have myectomies done all the time, almost as standard procedure," said Gill. "Flipping [of the palate] is extremely common among racehorses, so I figure that's one problem we can try to eliminate."
Gill said his other practices include giving medication for EPM - equine protozoal myelitis, an infection that affects coordination - and upgrading a horse's nutrition. "I can talk to anyone for hours about the chemistry of a horse," he said.
There are dozens of examples like Stormin Cherokee. There also are the failures, which Gill acknowledges as part of the game. He said his Thoroughbred business is not profitable but has a chance to be in the future.
"You could have slots coming to Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and maybe another couple of racing states," he said. "Obviously, that could really change the purse structures, and instead of eking out depreciation, like I am now, I could eke out a profit."
Shuman's job is to execute Gill's philosophy. Virtually every morning, Shuman works at Gulfstream while assistant Steve Margolis is in charge at Palm Meadows. Margolis, who trains his own small stable, possibly will take a string of Gill's horses to Kentucky this spring.
Shuman grew up around horses in Cleveland, working for his father, Joe, at Thistledown, even while earning a bachelor's degree in health and sports studies from Miami University in Ohio. He later worked as an assistant to Howie Tesher and Jim Bond. He went out on his own in 2000 but was struggling when Gill asked him to take over a string of horses in Maryland.
"It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time," said Shuman. "Now it's like I'm living a dream."
Like Gill, Shuman also has run afoul of racing officials in at least one notable instance: He was suspended 15 days and fined $1,000 last year in Maryland when two of his horses tested positive in April for guanabenz, a banned muscle relaxant. Shuman said that he regularly uses the medication in training to prevent horses from cramping or tying up and that residuals of the drug showed up in postrace tests.
Shuman was fined and reprimanded in 2001 for two minor incidents at Delaware Park involving a Butazolidin overage and possession of a hypodermic needle. Shuman said the needle was "probably three years old" and was leftover from his days as an assistant trainer at Payson Park, where veterinarians regularly rode in his car.
In south Florida, Shuman uses three veterinary practices, including one employing Leonard Patrick, who was convicted in 1997 in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania on charges that he was a co-conspirator in the 1994 death of a racehorse for the purpose of collecting an insurance payment. Patrick told The Philadelphia Inquirer upon being convicted that he had been framed. Patrick's veterinary license since has been restored in Pennsylvania and other jurisdictions.
Some rival trainers have been openly critical of Gill and Shuman. Allen Iwinski and Peter Walder complained last month that Gill was claiming horses without bothering to know anything about their physical problems and that such practices were harmful to everyone involved, including Gill himself.
Kirk Ziadie, the trainer from whom Stormin Cherokee was claimed, said Gill was "pretty smart" about the claim, then added this back-handed compliment: "He adds blinkers and runs him in a race with no other speed. That's what he's doing, claiming horses that can go to the front and won't get caught at Gulfstream, where everything has to be one-two-three to win."
Asked about the mouth ulcer, Ziadie said: "That horse was training like a champ. We had him right. We knew it was probably a good claim."
Gill said criticism from his competitors was "sour grapes" and that he has "heard all the excuses. We're going to keep running right at them."
Gill said his ultimate goal is to win the Eclipse Award as top owner, "and the only way you can do that is win a lot of races." He also wants to win the Kentucky Derby and is in the process of substantially upgrading the caliber of his stable. He has an unraced 3-year-old colt by Seattle Slew whom he bought for $800,000 at auction, and he is actively trying to buy a prospect for this year's Derby.
"We just keep going forward, keep growing," said Gill.
In the meantime, he and Shuman figure to stay in the spotlight at Gulfstream. They will keep winning races, and people will keep talking about them. Any other way would not be the Gill way.