The highly anticipated revised schedule in southeast Florida racing will arrive Dec. 3 when Gulfstream Park begins an 87-day meet that will extend through April 8, 2012.
Opening day is a month earlier than the traditional early January start for the Hallandale Beach, Fla., racetrack. It comes after neighboring Calder Casino & Race Course early this year relinquished the attractive December dates to avoid possible head-to-head racing and picked up two April weeks that had been part of Gulfstream’s schedule.
Gulfstream sought the change to build a December program that would include many of the horses that already had been shipped from northern tracks to Gulfstream or its Palm Meadows Training Center affiliate in Boynton Beach. Now, Gulfstream is hoping its first month will have strong and deep fields that will help its meet get off to a successful start.
First post time will be 12:35 p.m. EST each day.
“We are starting a month earlier with what we feel is the best winter signal on the East Coast, with our stakes schedule and turf course,” Gulfstream president and general manager Tim Ritvo said. “If the weather cooperates and we can keep races on the turf, we think we can do even better (pari-mutuel handle) than last year.”
Another attraction for bettors will be 1 1/16-mile dirt races—the first at Gulfstream since 2004. Gulfstream is adding the distance by putting in a second finish line on its 1 1/8-mile track.
For its 2011 meet Gulfstream had its record average daily all-sources handle of $7.5 million over 79 days. Average daily ontrack handle was a $601,000. Compared with 2010, all-sources handle was up 9%, while ontrack handle was up 14%.
“We expect that December will be a stronger month than April, but we can’t predict by how much,” Ritvo said.
He pointed out that the four weeks in April have traditionally been Gulfstream’s lowest month for handle. But month-by-month data was not readily available.
Gulfstream’s fan base includes numerous part-year residents and tourists—many of whom arrive in December. Gulfstream will race Thursdays through Sundays during December, and add Wednesdays Jan. 4.
Ritvo and John Marshall, Calder’s vice president for racing, each said they expect to keep the schedule of Gulfstream opening in early December for at least one more year. But Marshall said Calder would like to add a week in early April.
By Feb. 29, 2012, Florida Thoroughbred tracks must submit their dates to the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering for the 12 months beginning July 1, 2012. The tracks pick their own dates, with automatic approval from the Florida DPMW.
Ritvo expects horses from Calder will be an important part of Gulfstream fields, especially in December when some trainers are still sending in horses from northern states.
“It can take a few weeks for horses to get acclimated to the weather here,” said trainer Ken McPeek, who arrived in southeast Florida Nov. 28. McPeek said he does not expect to enter horses at Gulfstream until mid-December.
With the combination of seasonal and year-round trainers, Ritvo hopes Gulfstream can have average fields of nine horses in December and then increase that number. In 2011 the average field size for the meet was 9.5 horses.
Gulfstream plans to have average daily purses of $350,000, including stakes, during December, and raise that to about $400,000 for most of its meet. Ritvo said purses averaged about $400,000 a day in 2011.
On Dec. 3 Gulfstream will open with 10 races and purses of $386,500 and 106 entries including also-eligibles. The feature will be the $100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes at six furlongs on dirt for 2-year-olds. The number of races will be fewer and purses will be lower on many weekdays in December.
Gulfstream will have 53 stakes with 33 of them graded, starting Dec. 4 with the $100,000 Sugar Swirl (gr. III) at six furlongs for fillies and mares, 3-year-olds and up.
Gulfstream officials hope the 1 1/16-mile dirt distance will be especially attractive to trainers who have 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown trail. In recent years, some trainers based at Gulfstream and Palm Meadows have sent horses to other tracks for stakes and other races at that distance.
The finish line for 1 1/16-mile races will be about 100 feet inside the sixteenth pole. The start for those races will be about 100 feet ahead of the regular finish line, which is the starting line for 1 1/8-mile races.
Maximum field size will be 12 for 1 1/16 mile races, which will have a short run to the first turn.
The $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes for 3-year-olds will be at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 26. For several years, it was run at 1 1/8 miles. That race is a prep for the $1 million Florida Derby (gr. I) at 1 1/8 miles March 31.
Gulfstream will run its two other grade I stakes Feb, 11: the $500,000 Donn Handicap is at 1 1/8 miles on dirt for 4-year-olds and up, while the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap is at 1 1/8 miles for 4-year-olds and up.
Todd Pletcher will seek his ninth straight Gulfstream training title. Bill Mott, Dale Romans, and Nick Zito are among other returnees.
The jockey colony will include Paco Lopez, who led Gulfstream in wins in 2010 and 2011, along with former title winners John Velazquez, Jose Lezcano, and Edgar Prado. Starting in mid-December, Calvin Borel will ride as a regular at Gulfstream for the first time.
Gulfstream has added 250 covered stadium-like seats in the area near the eighth pole. The new seating area is just north of the Tiki bar area, where fans will still be able to watch races from the rail.
Gulfstream also has installed six enhanced, higher-resolution Daktronics LED-display giant screens. That includes the main screen/tote board at the finish line.
Gulfstream has added a Super Hi 5 wager, with a $1 minimum, on each day’s final race. If no tickets have the top five finishers in the correct order, 75% of the wagering pool will be carried over to the next race day.