The racing world is forever on the lookout for the emergence of Thoroughbred stars that possess the talent and charisma to attract the public's attention to the "Sport of Kings."
Gulfstream Park's $10.1 million stakes program, highlighted by the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby on March 30, will produce a good number of rising stars who will generate heightened interest during the 2012-2013 meeting.
Yet, it is fitting that the launch of the 61-race stakes program will pay homage to the unsung hero of the racing industry -- the claimer, the everyday warrior that provides the foundation for every racetrack's racing program. While the racing world waits for their stars to emerge, the claiming horse provides the uninterrupted daily action in relative anonymity.
Some of the biggest stars in Thoroughbred racing history had roots in the claiming ranks, including the legendary Seabiscuit, who had raced in a $2,500 claiming race; two-time Horse of the Year John Henry, who had raced for a $25,000 claiming tag; and Hall of Famer Stymie, who was claimed for $1,500 and went on to become a multiple Grade 1 stakes winner.
The $850,000 Claiming Crown, a program of seven races for horses who have competed at least once in claiming races, will be held for the first time at Gulfstream Park on opening day Saturday, the first day of the 90-date meeting that will run through April 5. More than 200 trainers throughout the country have nominated their respective stables to the Claiming Crown to make their claiming stock eligible for such rare lucrative opportunities.
"We're ecstatic to play host to the 14th running of the Claiming Crown on our opening day," Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo said. "Horses competing in the claiming ranks are many of the toughest in the world. They're game and they build loyal followings within the Thoroughbred community, whether with fans, owners or trainers. I think this is a great opportunity for Gulfstream to help showcase these Thoroughbreds. It's also a great way to kick off what we believe will be a memorable winter meeting."
Gulfstream represents the most high profile venue that has ever staged the Claiming Crown, which had previously been held at Canterbury Downs, Parx, Ellis Park and, last year, Fair Grounds.
"To hold it on opening day puts it into a spotlight it's never been in before," said Dan Metzger, the President of the TOBA. "The move to Gulfstream Park this season has resulted in dramatic purse increases, as well as an expansion from five to seven races over a year ago.
The $200,000 Jewel will anchor the program of seven stakes that carry a minimum purse of $100,000.
The first open stakes of the 2012-2013 meeting will take place on Sunday with the $100,000 Sunshine State, which attracted 27 nominations, with the first graded contest, the Grade 3, $100,000 Sugar Swirl, taking place on December 8.
The meet highlights will take place in February and March, including the Grade 1, $500,000 Donn Handicap and Grade 1, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap both on February 9. The $400,000 Fountain of Youth and $250,000 Davona Dale, a pair of Grade 2 stakes for sophomores on the Kentucky Derby and Oaks trails, are scheduled for February 23.
The local prep for the Kentucky Derby, the Florida Derby, will share its March 30 card with five other graded contests -- the Grade 2, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks as well as the $150,000 Orchid, $150,000 Rampart, $100,000 Appleton and $100,000 Skip Away, all Grade 3 events.Gulfstream Park will open on Saturday with not only the Claiming Crown, but more than $1 million in customer-friendly improvements, including a new 25-table restaurant overlooking the walking ring and 32 box suites overlooking the finish line.
"Our customers wanted a unique dining experience near our walking ring that overlooks the fountain and the horses," Ritvo said. "The Fountain Club will provide such a location. Meanwhile the 32 boxes facing the track will each have six seats and will give our guests another unique location to spend the afternoon watching the races."Along with the new boxes and Fountain Club, Gulfstream has replaced the roofs on 12 barns on its backstretch. "Along with constantly updating our main building, it's important we continue updating our barn area," Ritvo added. "Horsemen both locally and nationally have been enthusiastic supporters and partners of Gulfstream Park. Our relationship with the horsemen is very important and one we want to continue growing."
Gulfstream will welcome back racing fans with a pair of giveaway promotions on opening day. Fans attending the races will receive a free calendar, featuring colorful photographs of Gulfstream's stars and highlighting important dates on Gulfstream's $10.1 million 61-race stakes schedule. Fans who purchase a program on Saturday will also receive a commemorative pin and coupons for the redemption of four other pins in a series that will be available on January 19, February 9, February 23 and Florida Derby Day, March 30. A case to hold all five pins will also be given to those fans who purchase a program on opening day.
On Sunday, fans who purchase a seat at Ten Palms, Silks or the grandstand will receive a Gulfstream Park Polo Shirt. Subsequent Polo Shirt giveaways are scheduled for January 26 and March 30. Other scheduled giveaways include: gym bag (December 22), money clip or key chain bottle opener (December 30), bottle opener (January 1), anniversary hat (February 9) and Pilsner glass (March 9).
The week of January 12 will feature a number of events, many tied to charity, that will culminate in the afternoon with the $1.3 million Florida Sunshine Millions and that evening's 42nd annual Eclipse Awards.
Gulfstream Park will kick off its meet Saturday with Breakfast at Gulfstream, a family-friendly event that once again allows the public to attend Saturday morning workouts while enjoying a breakfast buffet trackside and meeting special guests.
Sandy Bruno, a former assistant to legendary Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens and currently assistant to Phil Gleaves, will host the popular breakfasts each Saturday morning. Bruno will kick off the Saturday morning series with jockey Joe Bravo and Collmus as her special guests.
Breakfast at Gulfstream runs from 7-10 a.m. (EST). Anyone purchasing a buffet will get a Breakfast at Gulfstream T-shirt and the opportunity to take a tour through Gulfstream's barn area with Bruno.
Christina Bossinakis and John DeSantis will serve as hosts and analysts for the 2012-2013 Gulfstream. In addition to handicapping Gulfstream's daily races, Bossinakis and DeSantis will co-host 'Gulfstream Today,' before every live program and will host a special 'Gulfstream Today' each Saturday morning with a special guest. Bossinakis and DeSantis will also have their daily picks distributed free each day along with popular South Florida analyst Ron Nicoletti as part of the Gulfstream Handicapper. Brian Skirka will also join Bossinakis and DeSantis with live reports from the walking ring.