HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- Pushing the traditional opener back two days, until Jan. 5, won't be the only change awaiting horseplayers when the 2011 Gulfstream Park meeting gets underway on Wednesday.
New wrinkles one can expect to see this winter include higher purses, some intriguing additions to the wagering menu, upgrades throughout the plant, a bevy of fresh faces among the training colony, and even the possibility of twilight racing on Fridays sometime before the end of the meet. The stakes schedule is also richer and better than ever and kicks off with the Grade 3, $100,000 Old Hat on opening day.
"In Frank's opinion, the model wasn't working as well as it should, and we needed to figure out ways to correct it by coming up with some new and refreshing ideas, even if some of them sounded a little out of the box," said Gulfstream's president and general manger, Steve Calabro, referring to Frank Stronach, the chairman and CEO of MI Developments, Gulfstream's parent company.
And that's exactly what Calabro and Tim Ritvo, the recently appointed vice president of East Coast Racing for MI Developments, have done in preparation for the 79-day Gulfstream session that runs through April 24.
Stronach and MI Developments created a stir last week by announcing their intention to re-open and conduct live racing in December, perhaps in direct conflict with neighboring Calder Race Course. Stronach has proposed the concept of twilight racing on Fridays with first post in the 2:30 to 3 p.m. range and the card continuing until 7 p.m., according to Calabro. Gulfstream would need a change in current legislation to run beyond 7 o'clock.
"If twilight racing were to prove successful and we could get the law changed, we might consider extending our twilight cards to 8 or 9 p.m., but not later," Calabro said.
Among the other notable changes this winter will be several new wrinkles to the wagering format, including a 50-cent pick five and a 10-cent pick six to close out the card each day.
"We wanted to start making changes in small doses with our focus being on the customers' experience, not only ontrack but also in simulcast land," Calabro said. "And these new wagers are designed to attract and satisfy customers in both areas."
The 50-cent pick five will be offered with a 15 percent takeout, the smallest takeout offered on any pick five wager in the country, according to track officials. The 10-cent pick six will be seeded with $5,000 on opening day, with the jackpot to be paid out only if there is a single winner daily. Multiple winners will receive a consolation payoff.
Other changes include the addition of 50 self-service betting terminals, three tote boards located throughout the plant, an upgrade in food offerings, as well as a special Saturday morning breakfast program during training hours similar to the one conducted on a daily basis each summer at Saratoga.
The best change as far as horsemen are concerned will be an increase in daily average purses to $255,000, up from $219,000 in 2010. Overall purses, including stakes, will be just shy of $400,000 per day, the highest in track history with the minimum purse set at $15,000.
"In the past, slot revenues contributed approximately $3 million to purses. This year, that number is up to $7.5 million and could rise as high as $8 million," Calabro said. "The reason for the increase is two pronged. We are up 18 percent in slot revenues combined with the 15 percent reduction in the gaming tax rate we received from the state last summer."
Three-year-olds, as usual, will be the center of attention with several notable changes in that area as well, including moving the $1 million Florida Derby from a six-week gap in 2010 back to its more popular spot five weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Five weeks minus a day to be precise with the Grade 1 Florida Derby to be run this year on a Sunday, April 3, for the first time in the long and storied history of the event. Purses for the two major local preps for the Florida Derby, the Grade 3 Holy Bull (Jan. 30, also a Sunday) and Grade 2 Fountain of Youth (Feb. 26), have been increased to $400,000 apiece in 2011.
More money has attracted new faces with barn areas in south Florida full to overflowing this winter.
"I think our inventory of horses this season is the largest we've ever had with over 4,000 horses stabled throughout the region counting the horses we've got here on track, at Palm Meadows, Payson Park, Palm Beach Downs, and at Calder," said Calabro.
Among the trainers who have received stalls for the first time this winter at either Gulfstream or Palm Meadows or are returning after a short absence are Bob Hess, Mark Casse, Chris Block, Tom Bush, Tammy Domenosky, Skip Einhorn, Dominic Galuscio, Lisa Lewis, Carlos Martin, and Saeed bin Suroor.
"My gut is that both the quality and quantity of our horse population is the best we've had in my three years around here," said Calabro.
That quality includes seven of the 14 Breeders' Cup winners from 2010, topped by leading Eclipse Award candidates Uncle Mo (Juvenile), Awesome Feather (Juvenile Fillies), and Big Drama (Sprint). Other Breeders' Cup winners stabled in the area include Unrivaled Belle (Ladies Classic), More Than Real (Juvenile Fillies Turf), Pluck (Juvenile Turf), and Eldaafer (Marathon).