12/31/2003 12:00AM

Anticipating a record-breaking meet


MIAMI - Scott Savin had a spring in his step and every right to be smiling as he strolled through the racing office at Gulfstream Park on Wednesday morning. After suffering through several lean and stressful winters since assuming the position of track president in 2000, Savin is confident the 2004 meet, which opens Saturday, will be the most successful since Magna Entertainment Corp. acquired Gulfstream in the fall of 1999.

Savin's optimism is based on a number of factors, the most important of which is the quantity and quality of horses stabled in south Florida this winter. With the completion of Magna's state of the art, 1,400-stall Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, racing secretary Dave Bailey now has over 4,500 horses at his disposal: 2,600 at Palm Meadows and Gulfstream and the rest at Calder, Payson Park, and Palm Beach Downs.

Among the new trainers here this year are Scott Lake, who narrowly edged Steve Asmussen as the nation's winningest trainer in 2003; Kiaran McLaughlin, who took his stable public in September and who is wintering in south Florida for the first time; and Jimmy Jerkens, son of legendary trainer Allen Jerkens.

Other trainers who will help improve the quality of racing here include Frank Brothers, a mainstay on this circuit in the 1990's who has returned with a full barn, and Patrick Biancone and Michael Dickinson. Asmussen doubled his number of stall requests from a year ago, while Allen Iwinski has full barns both on track and at Palm Meadows. The Klesaris brothers, Bobby and Steve, are back again, and Dominic Galluscio has sent a string down from New York. Midwest power Wayne Catalano will also be on hand this season.

Said Savin: "I really think because of the stock we've got down here this is going to be Gulfstream's best meet ever, and I'm confident we'll meet our goal of breaking the track's all-time attendance and handle records. Not only do we have the quantity, but the quality of our stock is fantastic, and from talking to the horsemen it sounds like they're not only here to run but ready and eager to run."

Gulfstream Park's major asset, aside from the weather, has always been its 3-year-old program. The cornerstone of the meet remains the $1 million Florida Derby, to be run March 13, the richest of all the Kentucky Derby preps.

"This could be the strongest group of 3-year-old prospects we've had winter here in quite some time," Savin said.

His point is well taken. Five of the top eight horses on Daily Racing Form handicapper Mike Watchmaker's list of leading 3-year-old candidates - Eurosilver, Birdstone, Tapit, Silver Wagon, and Read the Footnotes - are stabled locally and are expected to launch their 2004 campaigns at Gulfstream. Other notable 3-year-olds on hand include The Cliff's Edge, Chapel Royal, the undefeated Sir Oscar, and Second of June.

The older horses are also well represented. Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide has returned for another season and is setting his sights on the Grade 1 Donn Handicap Feb. 7. Canadian Horse of the Year Wando is also expected to run at Gulfstream this winter, while Breeders' Cup Sprint champion Cajun Beat is scheduled to start in Saturday's Grade 3 Mr. Prospector Handicap on opening day.

Aside from what figures to be an outstanding winter on track, Savin has added a few new wrinkles off track to reward his fan base. A $100,000-guaranteed all-stakes pick three will be offered on opening day, and a handicapping contest for ontrack fans named the "Last Man Standing" begins Sunday. The Turf-Vivors handicapping contest will also return for a third year.

"We're coming out of the gate firing," said Savin. "Our goal is to get players focused on our meet beginning on Jan. 3 and not Feb. 1."