Gulfstream Park’s 2010 schedule is again laden with graded stakes, and one safe bet is that most of the 80 racing days will be warm and sunny.
Otherwise, there are changes and questions in abundance as Gulfstream prepares to open its season on Jan. 3 with a card that includes the $100,000 Hal’s Hope Handicap (gr. III) at one mile on dirt for 4-year-olds and up.
The Hallandale Beach, Fla., track has a new president and general manager in Ken Dunn, who has made several big adjustments in the stakes schedule.
Dunn and his team also are preparing for the Feb. 11 opening of "The Village at Gulfstream Park," an outdoor mall that will have 85 stores and restaurants adjacent to the track’s clubhouse/casino building. Without predicting numbers, Dunn expects many shoppers will take a short walk to bet on horses or play slot machines.
Then, there is the question of whether parent company Magna Entertainment Corp, might be forced to sell Gulfstream as part of its reorganization under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Magna has arranged sales of or set auction dates for several of its U.S. racetracks, but not for Gulfstream. During January 2010, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington, Del., is expected to rule on an unsecured creditors committee’s request to prohibit MI Developments, Magna’s largest shareholder, from bidding on any Magna tracks.
“It (Magna bankruptcy) is not impacting our operations at all,” Dunn said at Gulfstream on Dec. 29.
“When I got here (early November), we had a budget in place,” he said. “We are not spending on any large new capital projects. Our goal has been to open the meet in good shape and keep doing whatever is needed. No matter who owns Gulfstream, it will not impact the racing.”
On Dec. 29, Gulfstream’s main track, turf course and building looked ready for racing and for fans.
Preparations were not set back by the 12 inches of rain that fell on Dec. 17. Approximately 600 of Gulfstream’s 1,050 horses were moved to other sites for several days, while waters subsided in the backside area. Horses have been training regularly at Gulfstream since Dec. 19.
Gulfstream will have racing on Wednesdays through Sundays until April 24, with first post time at 1:15 p.m.
Todd Pletcher, Ken McPeek and Wesley Ward, who finished first through third in 2009 wins, are among the leading trainers back at Gulfstream. The jockey colony includes Jose Lezcano, Elvis Trujillo and Kent Desormeaux, the top three in wins at last year's stand.
Jackson Bend, Super Saver , Buddy's Saint, Noble's Promise , D' Funnybone and Homeboykris are among the leading 3-year-olds for 2010 stabled at Gulfstream or 45 miles north at Palm Meadows, Magna’s training center in Boynton Beach, Fla.
“It is exciting to come out every day and know that you will see the best jockeys, horses and trainers in the country,” Dunn said.
From 1990 through April 2008, Dunn was president and GM of Calder Race Course, eight miles west of Gulfstream.
On Nov. 2, 2009, Gulfstream hired Dunn to succeed Bill Murphy as president and GM. He has a contract through April 30, 2010.
Gulfstream is opening its meet with contracts signed with the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association for purses, simulcasting and advance deposit wagering.
Dunn and Kent Stirling, Florida HBPA’s executive director, said they are satisfied with the agreements.
As of Dec. 30, the only hurdle was that TrackNet Media Group and the MidAtlantic Cooperative, which represents 17 East Coast tracks on ADW negotiations, had not reached an agreement for carrying races from Santa Anita Park or from Gulfstream.
An early settlement would be important for Gulfstream because it has five stakes scheduled on Jan. 9, the meet’s first Saturday.
The inaugural "Gulfstream Sprint Showcase" will include three grade III stakes with $100,000 purses. They are the Old Hat for 3-year-old fillies, the Sugar Swirl for fillies and mares 4-years-old and up, and the Mr. Prospector for 4-year-olds.
“We moved several of those stakes from other Saturdays, and it is part of our focus on special days,” Dunn said. “Our goal is to attract media attention and customers at the start, and build on the momentum.”
Gulfstream will have 47 stakes, including 31 graded stakes.
The most prominent change in the schedule is for the $750,000 Florida Derby (gr. 1) and its preliminary stakes for 3-year-olds.
From 2005 through 2009, Gulfstream ran the Florida Derby five weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1). In 2010, the Florida Derby will be run on March 20, six weeks prior to the Derby. Gulfstream will have four other graded stakes on that day .
Gulfstream made the change partly to avoid a conflict with Fair Grounds’ multi-stakes March 27 card, which also will be attractive to simulcast bettors.
The distances for the Florida Derby’s two preliminaries also have been changed. The Jan. 23 Holy Bull (gr. III) will be at one mile, rather than 1 1/8 miles. The Feb. 20 Fountain of Youth (gr. II) will be at 1 1/8 miles, rather than one mile. The changes will provide a better progression for trainers of 3-year-olds, Dunn said.
On Jan. 30, Gulfstream will have three Sunshine Millions stakes. Magna-owned Santa Anita will have three stakes as part of the annual program restricted to Florida-breds and California-breds. The Sunshine Millions, launched in 2003, previously had four stakes at each track.
Gulfstream’s Sunshine Million races will be the $300,000 Turf, the $300,000 Distaff and the $200,000 Sprint.
On Feb. 6, Gulfstream will hold the $500,000 Donn Handicap (gr. 1) at 1 1/8 miles on dirt for 4-year-olds and up.
Starting on opening day, Gulfstream will have a portable rail set up in the middle of its turf course--in effect creating two courses. The rail can be set in several paths.
Gulfstream’s turf course, at 170 feet, is one of the widest at U.S. tracks, Dunn said.
“This will enable us to reduce wear and tear, especially on the inner part of the course, and run more turf races,” he said. “That’s a big reason many trainers are here.”
McPeek said: “Their turf course is wide, and I think this change will make good use of it.”
Gulfstream ran 259 turf races in 2009.
“Bettors love turf races,” Dunn said, noting that large fields that attract handle.
Gulfstream’s average daily all-sources handle improved from $7.2 million in 2008 to $8.4 million in 2009, bucking the industry’s downward trend.
“I expect we will do as well as last year (2009), if not better,” Dunn said.
In 2009, Gulfstream had average daily purses of $90,000 for stakes and $216,000 for non-stakes. The track plans to have purses in that range, starting with its first condition book, Dunn said.
Opening day fans will see construction in final stages for the retail phase of The Village at Gulfstream Park, a joint venture of MEC and Cleveland-based developer Forest City Enterprises.
The mall is west of the clubhouse/casino and is connected by sidewalks. Several tenants are open and the remainder of the stores and restaurants should be set to go by Feb. 11.
The mall includes a parking garage, which will expand Gulfstream’s parking places from about 5,500 to 6,700. For major race days after Feb. 11, Gulfstream will consider arranging off-site parking and shuttle bus service to handle larger crowds of race fans and shoppers.
Gulfstream’s building that opened in 2006 has only about 850 seats facing the track. On weekdays in 2010, those seats will be free. Also on weekdays, there will be no charge for seats directly facing the track on the south side of the Ten Palms restaurant on the second floor.
Fans at Gulfstream and watching via simulcast will see a new team on the handicapping and paddock shows.
It will include Caton Bredar, executive producer for Gulfstream’s new media development department, Travis Stone and Alyssa Ali. They succeed Ron Nicoletti and Rowland Hoyt, who are no longer at Gulfstream.