Belmont Park presents its final stakes race of the spring-summer meet Sunday when a deep field of New York-breds contests the $100,000 Evan Shipman Handicap at 1 1/16 miles. Racing comes to an end at Belmont Sunday as racing shifts to Saratoga Race Course for its 135th season on July 23.
Gatsas Stables' Gander is the key attraction in this race and 124-pound highweight. The New Yorker has earned more than $1.6 million in 51 starts. The classy 7-year-old gelding will not have an easy task, spotting at least five pounds to all of his rivals.
"I'm really not concerned about the weight," said trainer John Terranova, pointing out that Gander carried 126 pounds when he won the Empire Classic here on New York Showcase Day last fall.
Gander comes off two efforts in which he was solidly beaten, although he had legitimate excuses. A speed-favoring track may have compromised his chances in the Westchester Handicap (gr. III) while slop may have cost him in an allowance run here June 1.
"He won off the layoff at Gulfstream," Terranova said. "The Westchester was a freakish race with Najran setting a world record for a mile in 1:32 1/5. In the money allowance, he didn't handle the slop."
Gander had been entered in a turf race, but Terranova opted to scratch him because of soft turf. "We've been waiting for this spot," the trainer said. "I didn't think he'd handle the grass if it was that soft."
After winning the Empire Classic last fall, Gander was sent to Churchill for the Clark Handicap (gr. II), but failed to fire. "I'm not discouraged," Terranova said. "The summer and fall is when he really hits his best form."
Sanford Goldfarb's Well Fancied could pose a big threat to Gander. Well Fancied has been facing some tough sprinters, including Shake You Down, recent winner of the $500,000 Smile Sprint Handicap (gr. III) at Calder.
Well Fancied managed to get away from those top sprinters in his last start and the 5-year-old won a $54,000 allowance going seven furlongs in the slop here June 13. This will be his first test past seven furlongs.
"I don't mind going a mile and a sixteenth with him around one turn," trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. said. "He likes Belmont. At this point, they're catching us when we're in real good shape. I'm not afraid of Gander."
Well Fancied, who carries 119 pounds Sunday, won a pair of stakes against New York-breds last year, taking the General Douglas MacArthur and Hudson Handicaps.
"If he breaks good and nobody else wants the lead, I would think he should be in front," Dutrow said. "It really doesn't matter where he lays. He's very versatile."
Dutrow has also entered Farmer Jake in the Evan Shipman. The 5-year-old gelding won at Monmouth via disqualification July 9.
Berkshire Stud's Sherpa Guide won the Evan Shipman last year. He has only made one start in 2003, finishing a distant third behind Northern Rock in a $56,000 allowance June 12.
"I thought he was getting tired in the last part of that race," trainer Tom Bush said. "He hung in there gamely for third though. I like the way he's acted since his last race and we've stayed on schedule."
With only one start this year, it is tough to tell if Sherpa Guide is as good in 2003 as he was in 2002. "I'm hoping he's as good as last year," Bush said. "Gander is always the horse to beat in these New York bred races and Sherpa Guide will probably have to run one of his best races to win."
Sherpa Guide will be getting six pounds from Gander at 118.
Ed Wachtel's Compelling World will be making his first start of the year in the Shipman. He was in good form while running in state-bred stakes races last year. The 5-year-old only lost by a half-length to Gander in the Empire Classic after a troubled trip. Compelling World was a convincing winner of the 2002 Kings Point Handicap at Aqueduct.
Always dangerous when on his game, Thebigapple is seeking his first stakes victory. He beat open runners in a second-level allowance here July 5. Trainer Bruce Levine will also be saddling Ahpo Here, who is coming off a long layoff having not run since June 15, 2002.
Evan Shipman Handicap, $100,000, New York-breds, 3-year-olds and up, 1 1/16 miles
PP, Horse, Jockey, Wgt.
1, Indian Card, Pablo Fragoso, 112
2, Looks Expensive, Raul Rojas, 112
3, Well Fancied, Edgar Prado, 119
4, Ahpo Here, Mike Luzzi, 117
5, Farmer Jake, Richard Migliore, 114
6, Sherpa Guide, Jose Santos, 118
7, Compelling World, Shaun Bridgmohan, 115
8, Mr. Determined, Jean-Luc Samyn, 112
9, Salute Him, Aaron Gryder, 112
10, Thebigapple, Jorge Chavez , 115
11, Gander, Eibar Coa, 124