01/03/2003 12:00AM

Can Gulf restore lost luster?

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Racing's most interesting business story in the first quarter of 2003 will be whether Gulfstream Park, which opened here Friday, can rebound from its dismal 2002 season. The verdict will reflect not only on a single race meeting, but on Florida winter racing and its place in the sport.

It used to be that just about every good horse outside of California raced in Florida during the winter at Gulfstream or Hialeah, and that most American champions began their seasons in the Sunshine State. But not one of the likely winners of the Eclipse Awards, which are handed out later this month, made a single start at Gulfstream last year. In some ways this is emblematic of broader changes in the sport such as lighter and later campaigning of top horses, but it also shows an erosion in Florida's place at the very top of the game.

Gulfstream's more immediate challenge is to reverse last year's results, in which a horse shortage led to unappealing racing that barely outhandled Aqueduct on a daily basis. Simulcast bettors who once primarily played Gulfstream during the winter found better opportunities in California, New York, or even New Orleans and Hot Springs, Ark. It was not just a matter of field size. The feeling was gone from years past that every Gulfstream maiden and allowance race demanded attention as a likely source of future stakes horses.

The early signs are for a better 2003. With an extra 700 horses stabled at Palm Meadows, fields should be bigger, and a few outfits that previously defected have returned. The track is stressing racing rather than postrace concerts in its advertising and has been responsive to customers by adding a pick four to the betting menu and instituting a player's reward and rebate program.

It all sounds promising, but questions remain. Rather than shoring up the existing stakes programs and struggling races such as the Donn Handicap, Gulfstream is devoting its energy and extra purse dollars to the Sunshine Millions, a gaudy and somewhat eccentric co-promotion with Santa Anita to be held on Jan. 25. Each track will host four races pitting California-breds against Florida-breds.

More disturbing is that an ambitious program of renovations to the Gulfstream plant has been halted without a particularly convincing explanation, fueling concerns about Magna Entertainment's long-term plans for the property. Those plans may ultimately hinge on whether Gulfstream regains its former prominence on the racing calendar.

No viable alternative to Azeri

Eclipse Award votes were due at 5 p.m. last Tuesday, and at 4:30 p.m. I was still staring at the empty Horse of the Year box on my ballot, trying to find an alternative to the inevitable.

Azeri is a cinch to be named Horse of the Year when the final envelope is opened Jan. 27 at the Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles and not in one of those messy electoral-college squeakers. The reason it took me until 4:52 to write in her name is that she is a legitimate champion but a Horse of the Year purely by default. She is an outstanding racemare with a remarkable record but she will be Horse of the Year because there was no logical alternative.

When Azeri won the Distaff at the start of Breeders' Cup Day, at least five other horses - Came Home, Evening Attire, Rock of Gibraltar, Medaglia d'Oro, and War Emblem - still had to lose to make her the Horse of the Year. When they all did, it became impossible to argue their cases.

War Emblem was the story of the year and accomplished nearly enough with victories in the Derby, Preakness, and Haskell, but ended the year finishing off the board in three of his final four starts. Medaglia d'Oro was clearly the best 3-year-old by year's end but lost four of his last six, including all three Triple Crown races and the Classic.

Andrew Beyer makes an interesting case for Rock of Gibraltar, who may well have been the most talented horse on the planet in 2002, but how can you give a North American championship to a horse who neglected to win a race in North America?

Azeri, who won 8 of her 9 starts and collected five Grade 1 victories last year, had by far the best campaign of any candidate and it's unreasonable to demand in retrospect that she should have stepped outside of her division and beaten males. She is Horse of the Year by default and as a specialist, but so in recent years were Kotashaan and Favorite Trick and she's at least as worthy a racehorse as either of them.