06/10/2007 11:00PM

Working with fewer horses, his winning percentage improves

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In 2003, Mark Shuman kicked off the New Year by claiming three horses at Calder Race Course as private trainer for owner Michael Gill. And he never looked back.

When the dust cleared at year's end, the duo had claimed a total of 214 horses as part of a winning recipe which resulted in purse earnings of more than $5.6 million. Shuman won at a 20-percent clip from 1,105 starts and his runners hit the board 47 percent of the time. The following year meant more of the same - 158 wins from 987 starts and purses of more than $4.1 million - but in 2005 the team wound down with Shuman ultimately in charge of a public stable.

Shuman, 36, has managed to catch his breath, while continuing to put up solid numbers. In 2005, his runners made more than $3 million in purses, and while he has run considerably fewer horses since the start of last year, he continues to send out winners at about 20 percent. In fact, since training on his own - he came up the ranks in the early- to mid-1990s on the New York and Florida circuits under trainers Tom Skiffington, Howard Tesher, and James Bond - he has put up career-best percentage figures (22 percent wins, 59 percent in the money) this year with a record of 32-23-30 from 144 starts.

"Overall, I'd say I've found the last couple of years a welcome change," said Shuman, who trains about 30 head and races his stock predominantly in Maryland. "I wouldn't give back my time training for Mike, however, as it was such a tremendous opportunity from which I learned so much. Basically, with so many horses, there wasn't an ailment or injury on a horse that I didn't deal with. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but learned about training, vitamins, and a million different things. I had an opportunity that not many in this business get and the opportunity Mike afforded me was second to none and something I was able to build off in my career."

While Shuman still signs a claim slip from time to time - he has claimed 14 horses for eight different owners this year - he should be commended for successfully re-programming himself as a trainer to some degree. Gone are the days of claiming four and saddling nine or more on one racecard, and preaching patience to his owners has become the order of the day.

A strange twist?

"I still enjoy claiming and trying to maximize a horse's potential as a challenge, but at times I slow my owners down," Shuman explained. "It's not always easy and I encourage owners to not jump in with both feet. Some claims pan out, and probably about one of a thousand is a home run, but a lot of the cheaper ones can suck up money on training and vet bills and I never want to claim to put a horse in a stall. I think long-term and want to fill that stall with quality. In the end, the owner and myself benefit most. I want to be in the big races and set goals like the Kentucky Derby - like most in this business."

Shuman mentioned a couple of highlights in his career, including a $5,000 claim of Boston Brat, who went on to set a pair of track records at Gulfstream Park, but right now the horse that has brought him recognition is Xchanger. A 3-year-old colt by Exchange Rate, Xchanger was purchased last year at auction by Shuman for $40,000 and he's now a three-time winner of nearly $300,000. Two starts back, he captured Pimlico's Federico Tesio Stakes and he most recently finished eighth after showing speed in the Preakness.

"I found it very rewarding to pick Xchanger from a sale, win with him first time out as a 2-year-old, and to see him go on," Shuman said. "And, it's a chapter that's not over yet. I don't think I've gotten his full potential yet and I'm still trying. I'm not sure if he wants to go short or long - his fade in the Preakness trying to go 1 3/16 miles off 1:09 for three-quarters wasn't conclusive - but we'll move on with him."

Other horses of Shuman's to watch include Talent Search, a horse who won his maiden last year for another trainer with a $12,500 tag attached and who most recently finished second in Grade 3 company at Pimlico after winning a stakes in his prior start; and Bingobear, stakes-placed in turf sprints in each of his last two starts.