There will be a sense of normalcy, with no neighborhood competition from Calder Casino & Race Course, and a scent of some still-fresh paint Dec. 6 when Gulfstream Park opens its 2014-15 "Championship Meet."
There also willl be a national spotlight Saturday because the Hallandale Beach, Fla., oval's 10-race opening day card includes the annual Claiming Crown, eight stakes races worth a combined $1 million.
The Claiming Crown, which Gulfstream is holding for the third straight year, is open only to horses that have started in claiming races for designated amounts or less since Jan.1, 2013.
First-post time will be 12:35 p.m. ET on opening day, and for most of the 82-day meet that ends March 29. The racing schedule will primarily be Wednesdays through Sundays.
The meet will have 67 stakes, with 37 of them graded.
The highlighted $1 million Florida Derby (gr. I) for 3-year-olds will be run March 28, when Gulfstream will feature a card including five other graded stakes.
A major day and night—on and off the track—will be Jan.17. Gulfstream will have the annual Sunshine Millions stakes series for Florida-breds, followed by the 44th annual Eclipse Awards dinner and announcement of winners.
Gulfstream will hold its winter meet and launch its 76th year of racing following two dark months—its first break from racing since May 2013.
"We took the two months to get some work done," said P.J. Campo, Gulfstream's newly named general manager and vice president of racing.
That work included painting throughout Gulfstream's building and putting in new carpets, furniture, and TVs in the luxury suites.
One new attraction will be the Players' Room, a tent-like structure near the first turn with space for 400 fans. The area features simulcast seating and dining.
During the 2013-14 traditional four-month winter season, Gulfstream raced head-to-head with Calder on Fridays through Sundays.
That competition lasted from July 2013 through June 2014. The two tracks and their parent companies signed an agreement July 1 under which Calder will have racing just two months each year, with Gulfstream and its parent The Stronach Group running the meets.
Gulfstream ran unopposed from this July through September. It held its Gulfstream Park West meet at Calder from Oct. 8 through Nov. 30. For the last five days of the GP West meet, the average field size was 9.2 horses per race and daily average all-sources handle was $4 million.
Those field sizes were among the highest and handle was the best for any week in the meet. Both numbers were helped by earlier than usual arrivals of horses trained by such prominent Gulfstream winter regulars as Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, and Christophe Clement.
Campo expects that the attraction of the Claiming Crown and momentum from national and local bettors who followed the GP West meet will start Gulfstream on another strong season of handle and equine participation.
"We expect to at least be in the high 8's in field sizes," Campo said.
In 2012-13, Gulfstream set its winter (championship) meet record with daily average all-sources handle of $8.55 million. In 2013-14 Gulfstream's average was $8.33 million despite competition from Calder.
A review of Equibase charts indicates Calder's average handle was about $1.3 million during the period of Gulfstream's championship meet.
Campo isn't predicting another meet handle number, noting that "a lot will depend on the weather." However, he did add, "We won't have someone just down the road running eight races a day. Those horses and bettors will have to go somewhere."
Gulfstream's major race dates and their stakes races include:
* Dec. 27: $100,000 W.L. McKnight (gr. IIIT), $100,000 La Prevoyante (gr. IIIT), $100,000 Mr. Prospector (gr. III)
*Jan. 17: $1 million Sunshine Millions, with the $350,000 Sunshine Millions Classic and four other stakes for Florida-breds.
*Jan. 24: $400,000 Holy Bull (gr. II), $200,000 Forward Gal (gr. II), $150,000 Hutcheson (gr. III)
*Feb. 7: $500,000 Donn Handicap (gr. I), $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (gr. IT)
*Feb. 21: $400,000 Fountain of Youth (gr. II), $200,000 Davona Dale (gr. II), $200,000 Mac Diarmida (gr. IIT), $150,000 The Very One (gr. IIIT), $150,000 Canadian Turf (gr. IIT), $100,000 Rampart (gr. III), $100,000 Gulfstream Park Sprint (gr. III)
*March 28: $1 million Florida Derby (gr. I), $300,000, Honey Fox (gr. IIT), $250,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks (gr. II), $150,000 Skip Away, $150,000 Appleton (gr. III), $150,000 Pan American (gr. IIIT), $150,000 Orchid (gr. IIIT),
Pletcher will be seeking his 12th straight Gulfstream winter meet training title. Brown, Bill Mott, Mike Maker, Nick Zito, and Kiaran McLaughlin will be among other returnees.
Marty Wolfson, Eddie Plesa Jr., and David Fawkes are prominent among trainers who race year-round in South Florida.
Javier Castellano will seek his fourth straight winter meet riding title John Velazquez, Paco Lopez, and Luis Saez could have the best chances to displace Castellano.
Edgard Zayas and Ramsey Zimmerman head the contingent of riders who are based year-round in South Florida.