01/23/2003 12:00AM

Zucker hopes for better trip this time

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - For trainer Howie Zucker, a trip to south Florida is more than just business. The Southern California-based horsemen has numerous friends in the area and looks forward to one of his infrequent trips there.

Zucker is in town this weekend to run Madame Pietra in Saturday's $250,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint. A 6-year-old, Madame Pietra comes into the race on top of her game, having won stakes against open company in her last two starts. And she will be heavily favored to win the first of the four Sunshine Million Stakes on Gulfstream's program.

Zucker also will be hoping for better results than in his previous visit here last summer, when his runner Crafty C.T. finished third as the even-money favorite in Calder's Smile Sprint Handicap, which was won by Orientate.

"In retrospect, Crafty C.T. didn't really run a bad race at Calder, considering the horse that beat him was the Eclipse Award sprinter and won the Breeders' Cup," Zucker said. "Crafty really wasn't himself that day because of the heat. He went over to the paddock with his head hanging. Obviously, we won't have that problem Saturday with the filly. In fact, with the weather forecast being what it is, she's actually going to be shipping from a warmer climate into the cold and mares usually like that sort of thing."

Zucker said he is all for the Sunshine Millions concept, but thinks it is less about the team concept than the individual horses involved.

"When I root for certain horses to win this weekend it's not because they are California-breds or Florida-breds," Zucker said. "Naturally, I'm hoping my filly wins but not because she represents Team Florida. I mean, let's be honest, we're mainly here because of the money and for the bragging rights. And when I root for Sir Bear to win the Classic, it doesn't matter what team he's on. It's because of the whole story regarding the people who bred him, and the fact he's 10 years old and going into this race as one of the underdogs."

Velasquez appeals, keeps Millions mounts

Jockey Cornelio Velasquez was handed a seven-day suspension by the stewards for careless riding aboard Lucky Locomotion in the second race on Jan. 18. The suspension was scheduled to begin Friday and run through the following Thursday, which would have forced Velasquez to take off his four mounts on Saturday's Sunshine Millions program.

As a result, Velasquez has appealed the ruling and will have a hearing before the stewards on Thursday. Thus, he will be able to keep his engagements Saturday, mounts that include key contenders Supah Blitz in the Dash and The Judge Sez Who in the Classic.

Durkin joins NBC coverage crew

Tom Durkin, the renowned New York-based race-caller who worked at Gulfstream from 1995-99, will call the two Gulfstream races to be broadcast on NBC, the Filly and Mare Sprint and the Classic. Durkin has been off from his regular job at the New York Racing Association since Jan. 1 and is preparing to leave for his annual winter vacation in Italy.

Tom Hammond, Mike Battaglia, and Charlsie Cantey will anchor the NBC coverage out of Gulfstream, while Bob Neumeier and Trevor Denman will handle the coverage from Santa Anita.

Ziadie warns Sir Bear might surprise

It has been more than a year since Sir Bear last won a race. Sir Bear won the Grade 3 Skip Away Handicap here last January, but has done very little since, with one runner-up finish and no wins from six starts.

Clearly, as a winner of 19 races and more than $2.5 million for breeder-owner Barbara Smollin, Sir Bear has earned a comfortable retirement. But trainer Ralph Ziadie insists the gelding still shows a zest for training, and said he wouldn't be surprised if Sir Bear surprises people Saturday in the Classic. "He looks and acts like a 2-year-old," Ziadie said.

Ward hopes it's Booklet's track

Trainer John Ward is hoping that Booklet shows the same affinity for Gulfstream that he did last year. Booklet, who drew post 12 in the Classic, won the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth Stakes here last winter.

"I don't know that he really cared that much for the surface over at Calder," said Ward, referring to a recent fourth-place finish in the Hooper Handicap last month. "Obviously, we'd like to see him take to the Gulfstream track the way he did last year."

* Like most tracks across the country, Gulfstream will have a special post time Sunday to accommodate the Super Bowl. First post is noon Eastern, with the last of 10 races scheduled for about 4:10 p.m. Super Bowl kickoff is 6:18 p.m.

* The Sunday feature is the $75,000 Dave Feldman Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile turf race for 3-year-olds. Strizzi, trained by Malcolm Pierce, figures as the favorite in what Gulf officials say is likely to be a medium-sized field. Because of the special post times, nothing was scheduled for the Gulfstream concert series Sunday.

* Three-year-old fillies will compete in both $100,000 stakes here next weekend. The Herecomesthebride Stakes, run at 1 1/16 miles on grass, is the Saturday feature, while the six-furlong Old Hat is set for next Sunday.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee