Gander Headlines $250,000 Empire Classic

The $250,000 Empire Classic, the centerpiece of Saturday's New York Showcase Day at Belmont Park, has drawn Grade II winner Gander.

The 1 1/8-mile Empire Classic (5:50 p.m. Eastern) will be the 10th and final race of the card, restricted to New York-breds.

Races 4-10 are stakes – the Maid of the Mist, the Sleepy Hollow, the Iroquois Handicap, the Hudson Handicap, the Ticonderoga Handicap, the Mohawk handicap and the Empire Classic – each with a purse value of at least $100,000.

By far the leading money winner in Empire Classic field with more than $1.4 million, Gander will try for his second victory in this race. The gelding won in 1999, but did not participate in the last two runnings.

"We were debating about running him in this race last year, but he was doing so well we decided to take a shot at the Breeders' Cup," said trainer John Terranova.

Gander was ninth in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) last year here at Belmont Park and despite the 6-year-old's narrow 3/4-length defeat in the 2002 Woodward, Terranova and owner Gatsas Stables decided on the Empire Classic.

"The intent was to run in the Meadowlands Cup, then the Empire Classic," Terranova said. "He had a minor thing where he banged his nose in the stall before the Meadowlands Cup and we didn't want to take any chances."

The biggest issue for Gander in the Empire Classic will be the weights. He has been assigned high weight of 126 pounds, spotting rivals between six and 13 pounds.

"We're giving away a lot of weight," Terranova said. "I thought we'd get in with 124. I guess if anyone else is in this race was packing 126 in the Woodward, they wouldn't have finished as well as Gander did."

Gander may be the horse to beat in the Empire Classic, but the trainer to beat is Bruce Levine, who is the hottest trainer on the grounds with 11 wins from 36 starts as of Thursday. On Saturday, he will saddle Thebigapple, a colt owned by Levine's father, Robert.

Thebigapple is coming off two strong wins against New York-bred allowance company and will step up to face stakes horses for the first time.

"It always helps to have the momentum on your side going into a race like this," Levine said. "We've always thought highly of him and we were going to run in the Albany."

Things didn't work out right for Thebigapple at Saratoga and the Albany was scrapped. The colt ran poorly in both of his Saratoga starts at 1 1/8 mile, not finishing once.

"He held his breath one day," Levine said. "I don't know if he didn't like Saratoga or if he didn't like two turns."

Berkshire Stud's Sherpa Guide was improving with each start in late spring and early summer. The 4-year-old gelding won three straight, including the Evan Shipman. Trainer Tom Bush did not race Sherpa Guide at Saratoga and saddled him in the Woodward to a poor fifth.

"He was steered out into the middle of the track at the three-quarter pole," Bush said. "He prefers to finish outside, but he doesn't have to be laying eight lengths back."

New York Derby winner Trial Prep, second in the other two legs of the Big Apple Triple, has been rested since the Albany and comes in fresh.

"He ran three times real quick back in that New York bred series," trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. said. "We backed off him and gave him a little break. I have a fresh New York bred for the winter and there's a lot of money around."

Compelling World and Mount Intrepid will run as an entry owned by Ed Wachtel. In his last start, Compelling World ran up against Najran, who returned to win a minor stakes at Keeneland in his next start.

Mount Intrepid beat Gander in the Kings Point by a nose earlier this year over a wet track.

$250,000 Empire Classic, 1 1/8 mile, 3 & up
1 Personal Pro, Edgar Prado, 116
2 Gander, Richard Migliore, 126
3 Toddler, Mike Luzzi, 116
4 Sherpa Guide, Jose Santos, 120
5 Lord Of the Thunder, Javier Castellano, 112
6a Compelling World, Shaun Bridgmohan, 117
7a Mount Intrepid, Norberto Arroyo Jr., 117
8 Running Today, Victor Carrero, 114
9 Trial Prep, Rudy Rodriguez, 117
10 Sophisticated Man, Jorge Chavez, 117
11 Thebigapple, Aaron Gryder, 113
12 Brave One, Heberto Castillo Jr., 115
13 Mr. Determined, Jose Bermudez, 113

Toddler will race with blinkers.