HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- For dyed-in-the-wool horseplayers, winter didn't officially start in south Florida until the first week of January, when Gulfstream Park would traditionally open for one of the premier race meets in North America. But winter will come early in 2011, courtesy of Gulfstream's decision to break tradition and kick off the new season Saturday, a full month earlier than usual.
The 10-race program is highlighted by the $100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes for 2-year-olds. The 2011-12 session continues through April 8.
Gulfstream management is gambling that trading off a couple of weeks in April to run the entire month of December will further boost business that boomed during 2011. Last year's meet produced increases of more than 14 percent in ontrack handle and nearly 9 percent in all-sources handle over the previous year.
"Starting the meet earlier and ending earlier fits better with the national racing schedule, considering the caliber of horses that race here each winter," said Tim Ritvo who was promoted to president and general manager of Gulfstream earlier this year. Gulfstream is owned by The Stronach Group, which is headed by Frank Stronach.
"And simulcast wise, there are not a lot of quality products in December. The new schedule allows us to stand alone in the national spotlight, instead of competing with Santa Anita when we opened and with Keeneland in April."
Gulfstream also has implemented more than $3 million in capital improvements that include the installation of the Trakus horse tracking system and six high-resolution video boards; 250 free covered stadium seats in the upgraded Tiki area just north of the finish line; and, perhaps most notably, a second finish line, which will allow racing secretary Dan Bork to card 1 1/16-mile races at Gulfstream for the first time since 2004.
There will even be a new post time, with the card starting at 12:35 p.m. Eastern daily. Racing will be conducted four days a week in December, Thursday through Sunday, then expand to five days for the remainder of the meet with the addition of Wednesdays.
Both Ritvo and Bork are particularly excited about the prospect of running races at 1 1/16 miles this year. Previously, two-turn races began at 1 1/8 miles. The 1 1/16-mile races will begin approximately 100 feet past the traditional finish line of the 1 1/8-mile main track and end the same distance past the sixteenth pole.
"Obviously, getting 3-year-olds around two turns earlier during the winter is something our horsemen have requested for a long time and is essential as a lead-up for the Florida Derby," Ritvo said. "Now, we are able to provide that type of race and also to finally be able to run the traditional Florida Derby prep, the Fountain of Youth, at a mile and one-sixteenth once again."
Gulfstream also tweaked its marquee event, the $1 million Florida Derby, moving the race to Saturday, April 1, instead of carding the Grade 1 fixture on a Sunday as was the case in 2011. The reason for running the Florida Derby on Saturday this year, Ritvo said, is that April 2 is Palm Sunday and the racetracks and OTBs in New York – a huge simulcast market for Gulfstream – are closed that day.
As usual, there will be no shortage of 3-year-olds awaiting their chance to embark on the Kentucky Derby trail at Gulfstream this winter. Among them will be Hansen and Union Rags, the first- and second-place finishers in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last month. The first major prep for the Florida Derby is the $100,000 Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year's Day.
Bork said he is hopeful Gulfstream will have no problems filling its races early in the meet.
"We might be a little light on entries the first week or two, until the horses from New York and Churchill Downs settle in, but I don't foresee any problems filling entries as long as the weather cooperates," he said. "The four-day racing schedule in December will also help."
Bork will be able to draw from the barn areas throughout south Florida that house nearly 4,000 horses during the winter. The top 17 trainers in the standings from the 2011 Gulfstream meeting, including perennial leader Todd Pletcher, will be back, and are joined by a bevy of new faces, including Jane Cibelli, Monmouth Park's leading trainer in 2011; and Scooter Dickey, whose Flat Out will be pointed to the Grade 1 Donn Handicap; as well as Ralph Nicks, Scott Volk, Eoin Harty, David Vance, and Gary Simms.
Among the returnees is Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, who favors the early opening.
"I think it's a good idea, especially with grass racing done, for the most part, up north," McGaughey said. "From a personal standpoint, it's easier to get started in January, but we've got horses to run in December. And the purses should be a lot better now than they are after the Florida Derby, when they become a drop in the ocean compared to other places."
The local jockey colony, anchored by two-time defending champion Paco Lopez, John Velazquez, and Javier Castellano, will be bolstered by the addition of three-time Kentucky Derby winner Calvin Borel, who plans to ride regularly in south Florida for the first time this winter.
Ritvo is hoping the early opening will draw holiday shoppers in from The Village, the outdoor mall located adjacent to the racetrack, and result in new racing fans.
"December is a key month for us," he said. "Although you never know what will happen until you try it, I'm optimistic our plan to open early will turn out to be a huge plus for everybody."