Gander Looks for Third Empire Classic Win

(from Belmont report)
At the age of seven, Gatsas Stables' Gander will be the oldest competitor in the biggest race of the year strictly for New York breds when he goes to post in Saturday's $250,000 Empire Classic, the nine-furlong feature of New York Showcase Day at Belmont Park.

In Gander's six-year career, the gray gelding has won this race the only two times he competed in it. The strongest threat to Gander's quest of a third Empire Classic victory is Sanford Goldfarb's Well Fancied, an impressive winner of three straight.

All 10 races on the card are for New York breds -– seven of which are stakes worth a combined $1 million – as part of the New York Showcase Fall Festival. An all-stakes Pick Four on races 7 to 10 with a guaranteed pool of $500,000 will feature the Ticonderoga, Hudson and Mohawk handicaps, as well as the Empire Classic.

Back in 1999 at the tender age of 3, Gander won his first Empire Classic. He did not run in this race the next two years as his connections focused on the Breeders' Cup Classic instead. Then last year, off a solid second behind Lido Palace in the Woodward (gr. I), the Gatsas family and trainer John Terranova opted for the Empire Classic and Gander did not disappoint, digging in for the victory under high weight of 126 pounds as the 4-5 favorite.

With the presence of Well Fancied this time around, Gander is not the high weight. He will get one pound from Well Fancied and carry 123, and he will probably not be the wagering favorite in spite of the veteran's huge fan base, probably second only to Funny Cide among New York breds.

"He's an old fan favorite," Terranova said. "We get a lot of mail and phone calls on him all the time. A lot of people follow him and I hope he puts on a big show for them Saturday."

This has been a tricky year for Gander and Terranova. Sandwiched in between 2003 victories are three distant defeats, including a 10 ½-length loss to Well Fancied in July. His sub-par performances this year are attributed to a problematic stifle, the area below the hip.

"The stifle problem was bugging him this spring," Terranova said. "That's what was really holding him back from getting back on form. He's a pretty smart horse and if he doesn't feel 100 percent, we're not going to get that big race out of him."

Gander, who retains jockey John Velazquez for the Empire Classic, will be looking for his first stakes win this year.

Off his runaway stakes wins in the Evan Shipman and General Douglas MacArthur, Sanford Goldfarb's Well Fancied will be the one to beat. The 5-year-old gelding was regarded mainly as a sprinter before he drew off to take the 1 1/16-mile Shipman. That victory gave his connections confidence that an extra sixteenth of a mile would not pose a problem. During last year's Showcase, Well Fancied ran in the six-furlong Hudson for $125,000 less than the Classic.

"He's ready for anything off his last two races," trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. said. "He ran away from them two starts back going a mile and a sixteenth, so I can't say I'm worried about him going a mile and an eighth."

Mohawk: Quantum Merit, Irish Colonial and all your old favorites
The premier turf race for New York-bred males is the $150,000 Mohawk Handicap at 1 1/8 mile. Quantum Merit is the in-form horse here. After a very wide trip in the West Point at Saratoga, the 4-year-old gelding easily broke through his state bred allowance conditions, then ran off to a 3 ¾-length victory in the Ashley T. Cole last month. Both wins came eight days apart.

"It was super to win back-to-back races in eight days," trainer Del Carroll II said. "It would be even better if he could win three in a row. You never know what the gas tank is going to say, but he didn't miss an oat after either race."

Owned by Very Un Stable, Quantum Merit has already posted two wins going a mile and an eighth over Belmont's inner turf course. The Mohawk will be contested over the inner course as well.

Fred Martin's Irish Colonial has not run since Belmont Stakes Day when he set the pace and tired to seventh in the Manhattan (gr. IT), but was only beaten 3 ¾ lengths over extremely soft turf. The colt has battled a splint problem and could be short coming into the Mohawk with only four published workouts since the Manhattan. He has won his last three starts against New York breds on turf.

Haggs Castle, Statement and the 2001 winner of this race, I'm All Yours always merit respect in New York bred turf stakes.

Dynamic Lisa tries to rebound in Ticonderoga
The filly and mare counterpart to the Mohawk is the Ticonderoga Handicap, run at the same distance with $150,000 on the line as well. The Ticonderoga will kick off New York Showcase Day's guaranteed $500,000 Pick 4.

Herbert Schwartz's Dynamic Lisa won her last two starts against New York breds, but could not come away with a victory in a pair of tries in graded stakes, finishing sixth in the Glens Falls and 10th in the Nobel Damsel.

"She might have been too close to the pace in the Nobel Damsel," said Schwartz's son Scott, who trains the filly. "They went :45 2/5, 1:09 and 1:33 for the mile and she's usually not at her best chasing. That doesn't leave her anything for the end."

Matthew Stasior's Perfect Energy finished second behind Dynamic Lisa in the Yaddo and returned to take the Via Borghese, a $65,000 race for fillies and mares which have not won a stakes race.

$250,000 Empire Classic Handicap, New York breds 3 & up, 1 1/8 mile
1. Private Emblem, Steve Asmussen, Jerry Bailey, 120
2. Lord of the Thunder, Jennifer Pedersen, Javier Castellano, 118
3. Gander, John Terranova II, John Velazquez, 123
4. Well Fancied, Richard Dutrow Jr., Edgar Prado, 124
5. Compelling World, John DeStefano Jr., Shaun Bridgmohan, 115
6. Mr. Determined, Richard DeMola, Julio Pezua, 111
7. Spite The Devil, H. Allen Jerkens, Jorge Chavez, 114
8. Traffic Chief, Mike Hushion, Richard Migliore, 117
9. Acceptable Venture, Dale Romans, Jose Santos, 114
$150,000 Mohawk Handicap, New York breds 3 & up, 1 1/8 mile on turf
1. Robbie's Rockin, P.G. Johnson, Shaun Bridgmohan, 113
2. Irish Colonial, Randy Schulhofer, Jose Santos, 122
3. Salute Him, Steve Kappes, Jose Espinoza, 114
4. World Of Wonder, Mike Miceli, Javier Castellano, 114
5. Golden Commander, Phil Serpe, Edgar Prado, 110
6. Foreverness, Greg Sacco, Jorge Chavez, 113
7. Quiet Ruler, Russell Mueller, Wilson Dieguez, 113
8. Statement, John Kimmel, Jerry Bailey, 119
9. Quantum Merit, Del Carroll II, Richard Migliore, 118
10. Haggs Castle, Jimmy Jerkens, Mike Luzzi, 114
11. Reluctant Groom, George Weaver, Aaron Gryder, 113
12. I'm All Yours, Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez, 120
Also Eligible
13. My Legal Alien, Joe Lostritto, Aaron Gryder, 110
$150,000 Ticonderoga Handicap, New York bred fillies & mares 3 & up, 1 1/8 mile on turf
1. Dynamic Lisa, Scott Schwartz, John Velazquez, 121
2. Spectaculaireontap, Richard Schosberg, Pablo Fragoso, 114
3. Exchange Bay, Frank Alexander, Jerry Bailey, 116
4. Alleged Whisper, John Kimmel, Richard Migliore, 112
5. Rose Esther, Keith O'Brien, Jose Espinoza, 115
6. Senora Poppy, Mike Hushion, Shaun Bridgmohan, 113
7. Near And Dear, H. James Bond, Edgar Prado, 114
8. Lady Bi Bi, John Hertler, Jose Santos, 115
9. Beebe Lake, Todd Pletcher, Jorge Chavez, 111
10. Ma Femme, John Hertler, Julio Pezua, 115
11. Brandala, Tom Walsh, Mike Luzzi, 118
12. Perfect Energy, Gary Sciacca, Javier Castellano, 117
Also Eligible
13. Queen's Triomphe, Tom Bush, Jose Espinoza, 113
14. Flag Pin, Ramon Hernandez, Jose Santos, 109
15. Irish Rail, Mick Nevin, Raul Rojas, 112
Main Track Only
16. Marc's Rainbow, Todd Pletcher, no rid