01/05/2009 12:00AM

Early indicators at Gulfstream


Gulfstream Park opened on Saturday, Jan. 3 with a surprisingly good crowd in attendance considering all the downward trends and speculation about the American economy.

Likewise, there were some encouraging race results on the first weekend of Gulfstream, results that provided a few clues that could boost the financial picture of horseplayers. Frankly, there often is money to be made at seasonal race meets by players who appreciate the value of early - make that, very early - trends.

For example, trainer Wesley Ward, who was among a handful of trainers to watch in 2009, indeed has come to south Florida loaded for bear. (Please see reference to Ward and other trainers and jockeys to watch in Nov. 29, 2008 issue of Simulcast Weekly.)

Not only did Ward win the first race of the meet with 9-2 shot Skip Away Belle - an absentee moving from turf to dirt - he also scored a decisive victory with 9-2 absentee Notonthesamepage in the six-furlong Spectacular Bid Stakes. Notonthesamepage had been second in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth during the summer but had faded badly in much tougher company going longer before Ward recycled the 3-year-old for this meet.

Horses trained by Ward certainly should command respect during the next month or so, especially those with whom he has had a chance to reboot their previous good form and find the right distance and level of competition.

Over the years, I have found that trainers who come ready to fire on the opening few days of a new race meet - especially a high profile, seasonal meet - are trainers worth following for at least the next several weeks. This is the case with Ward, who is not the only such trainer at Gulfstream who hinted last weekend that he is ready for a strong session.

Ken McPeek certainly gave positive signals with a win and a second on Saturday and a win on Sunday in an allowance for 3-year-old fillies, among other good performances.

Although Barclay Tagg's two starters on Saturday did not run well, he made up for that on Sunday with a one-two finish in an allowance race on the turf and a win in a $35,000 claiming race.

Other trainers who tipped their hand on the opening weekend were Kiaran McLaughlin, Marty Wolfson, and Mike Maker, and to a slightly lesser extent Todd Pletcher and Billy Mott, both of whom usually do well here.

I also found it interesting that all the six-furlong sprints on the main track but one were dominated by horses that controlled or pressed the pace from the outset. Yet, all but one of the races at one mile on dirt were won by horses who made their move after the first half-mile while swinging wide, including several who rallied from far back.

Familiar jockeys John Velazquez, Jose Lezcano and Alan Garcia rode several fine races on the opening weekend cards, while Julien Leparoux, Eibar Coa, Kent Desormeaux, Elvis Trujillo and Edgar Prado also have come to Gulfstream in peak form.

Without turning these early trends into a rigid system, it would make sense to give a long look to horses who will be ridden by the jockeys named above who are trained by horsemen who have come to this meet ready for action.

Beyond the above clues that were gathered from Gulfstream's first two racing days in a meet that will last through most of the spring, horseplayers should not be quick to downgrade shippers from Tampa Bay Downs. In fact, Tampa Bay Downs racing has improved much in this decade, and there are big prices to be had using live Tampa Bay shippers in Gulfstream's restricted claiming and allowance races.

Turf racing, which is a big part of the Gulfstream program, Is relatively weak at this time of year, compared to the quality we generally see during the summer and fall. But at Gulfstream, the turf program has the benefit of two big plusses that can deliver surprisingly strong events.

For one thing, turf racing at Calder has improved in recent years, giving many Florida-based horses extra opportunities to develop while maintaining a conditioning edge over most shippers from the north. There also is an increasing number of turf specialists trained by Mott, Pletcher Motion, McLaughlin, Tagg and Christophe Clement that will strengthen the early season cards. Frankly, during January and February it usually pays to give a slight edge to the Calder turf stars if the price is right over heavily played absentees who may need a race en route to the Grade 1 and Grade 2 turf stakes scheduled for later in the meet.

Speaking of early season handicapping issues, there is at least one additional trend that occurs every January and February that players everywhere should not overlook. It involves the annual depreciation in horse value that impacts newly turned 4-year-olds who soon will be asked to face older horses after almost two full years in which they were able to run against their own age group. This fact actually plays a role at every winter race meet in the country.

Specifically, any 3-year-old who ran well for, say, $25,000 against other 3-year-olds in December likely will be overmatched against 4-year-olds and up at the same $25,000 claiming level in January and February. To be competitive against older, these seemingly more valuable claiming horses probably will need to drop into cheaper claiming company, perhaps as low as $12,500 to $15,000.

Conversely, while some claiming races still are being written exclusively for 4-year-olds during the first several weeks of the new year, a 4-year-old that is coming out of a good performance against older at $15,000 claiming will be taking an important drop in class when his trainer moves him up to a $25,000 claiming race for his own age group. This maneuver is a hidden class dropdown of the highest order.