05/14/2007 11:00PM

Winning less, but enjoying life more

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FAIR HILL, Md. - Mark Shuman won more races in a four-month period in the winter and spring of 2003 than he will probably win this entire year. However, Shuman, 36, is enjoying himself much more now than he ever did then.

As a private trainer in 2003 for the controversial owner Michael Gill, Shuman set a Gulfstream Park meet record with 87 wins. Shuman finished the year ranked fifth nationally in wins with 225 and 10th in purse money won with $5.6 million. Gill, who employed other trainers, led the country in wins (425) and purse money ($9.2 million).

But Shuman and Gill were far from celebrated for their accomplishments. They were chastised by their peers and the press for their no-holds-barred approach to the claiming game, taking so many horses while sometimes dropping them back in for much lower prices than for what they had paid to claim them.

And, of course, there were the never-proven accusations of cheating, heightened by a bizarre case of a leg having been taken off a Shuman-trained horse who suffered a fatal injury in a race. All of this made for a pretty lousy experience for Shuman, who at the time was just in his second full year as a trainer.

"I hated it,'' said Shuman, who says he still keeps a scrapbook of all the negative press he received that year. "I was completely miserable.''

Shuman, whose stable once numbered 140 horses, seems a happier man these day with 26 horses in his care. He no longer trains for Gill, the Eclipse Award-winning owner of 2005 who has dramatically reduced the size of his stable. Instead, Shuman trains for nearly a dozen owners. He is based at the tranquil Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland where he shares a barn with steeplechase trainer Ricky Hendricks. Shuman is building his own 32-stall barn on the property, which should be completed soon.

Among the horses he conditions is Xchanger, a 3-year-old son of Exchange Rate who will be a longshot in Saturday's $1 million Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. Xchanger, a $40,000 2-year-old purchase, won the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico on April 21 and prudently was not rushed back in the Kentucky Derby.

"We all watched the Derby together,'' Shuman said, referring to Xchanger's owners Domenico Zannino and Joseph Masone. Shuman also has a quarter interest in the horse. "I thought the top two finishers [Street Sense and Hard Spun] ran their eyeballs out. I'm glad I wasn't running against them then. If you're ever going to beat a horse like [Street Sense], it would be back on two weeks rest.''

Shuman picked up his new clients in 2005 after Gill advised him he was going to scale back his operation. Shuman, who over an 8 1/2-year period worked in New York and Florida for trainers Tom Skiffington, Howie Tesher, and James Bond, went to work for Gill in November 2001. From 2002 to the middle of 2005, Shuman trained exclusively for Gill. Over that time, he won 496 races and his horses earned $13 million in purses.

"It was a great opportunity,'' said Shuman, the son of a trainer. "I couldn't ever second guess it; it was a building block. People told me I wouldn't make it a year there. I was there longer. He gave me the opportunity to be around a lot of horses - horses he bred, horses he bought, horses he claimed for $100,000, horses he claimed for $4,000, horses he bought at 2 year-old sales.

"You talk about an [injury] or a problem, I've seen them all 100 times because of the exposure he gave me. I think it's helped me today; I learned a lot. You learn from your mistakes and from things you go through and experiences, and I experienced everything.''

Especially at the 2003 Gulfstream meet. Gill and Shuman had gone on a claiming spree at the end of the Calder meet and came to Gulfstream loaded for bear. They won races each of the first 20 days of the meet while continuing to claim at a dizzying pace. Their winning, claiming, and cavalier attitude about it all angered their peers.

"We went in there and really wiped them all out,'' Shuman said. "Mike had more poker chips than anybody and we laid them out. By the time Gulfstream started everyone was scared. If they had a horse worth the money we were taking it. Mike told them 'If I can't beat ya, I'm gonna buy ya.' ''

The biggest controversy that winter came when the 9-year-old gelding Casual Conflict broke down during the running of a Feb. 3 race and had to be euthanized. One of Shuman's veterinarians, Philip Aleong, asked Shuman if he could amputate the leg to study the nature of the fracture. But before long, state officials pounced, seized the leg, and had it tested for illegal substances.

Seven weeks later, the Florida regulatory officials cleared Shuman and Gill of any wrongdoing.

"Every horseman in the country wanted us to get in trouble,'' Shuman said. "We were winning races claiming all their horses. The racetrack wanted us to get in trouble, too. It's the way this game is. The stuff I started reading was just crap. People treated us like crap; people badmouthing you right next to you.

"Half the people didn't know who I was. That's what else [ticked] them off. Who's this guy? Never heard of him. A lot of people in New York knew who I was. It wasn't like I was hillbilly out of the woods who just came to the track.''

Because of the controversy surrounding him and Gill, Shuman was denied stalls at tracks in Delaware and New York. Trainers not stabled ontrack were prohibited from claiming unless a horse was claimed from them first. Though he no longer is associated with Gill, Shuman was denied stalls again at Delaware Park this spring.

Shuman looks at that as a blessing. He is now based at Fair Hill, where there is a regular dirt track and the synthetic Tapeta surface. Shuman said he believes the Tapeta track has played a large part in his success this spring at Pimlico, where he is 9 for 19 through Tuesday. He said he has noticed a change in Xchanger, who spent a month at Oaklawn Park, where he ran fourth in the Southwest Stakes and seventh in the Rebel.

"I left [Xchanger] at Oaklawn for a month," he said. "It was the biggest mistake I made with the horse. That horse never had a physical issue and every day his feet were on fire out there. You didn't really notice till you came back off of it and see what his stride changed to.''

For Shuman, change is a good thing. He is content with his stable, which he says will grow as already-purchased 2-year-olds arrive. He is engaged to one of his exercise riders, Annisa Butler. And he is winning races at a 22-percent clip, which is what he used to do for Gill.

"I try not to worry about what anybody thinks,'' Shuman said. "I'm hoping for my own success and keep building off it. I have nothing to prove to anybody, I just prove to myself. You keep setting goals for yourself: This year try for the Preakness, run a credible race, and hopefully next year to aim for the Derby. For this horse right now things worked out. I think we're in the best spot we could be so far.''