01/05/2004 1:00AM

Excellent ontrack business for meet's opening weekend


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Five wintry weeks had passed since the highest caliber of racing had been conducted in the Eastern sector of the United States. So when Gulfstream Park launched its 2004 meet Saturday, ending the proverbial drought that began when Churchill Downs closed its fall meet and Aqueduct's best horses migrated south, its opening could not have come soon enough for many people.

Scott Savin was among the elated, as were at least a few horsemen who enjoyed a weekend they will long remember. Savin, the president and general manager of Gulfstream, said he was "absolutely thrilled" with how south Florida racing fans responded Saturday and Sunday. Attendance totaled 36,658, and ontrack handle was nearly $3.4 million, marking increases of 15 and 20 percent, respectively, over the comparable weekend dates from last year.

The encouraging opening-weekend numbers were reached partly by a concert program that "clearly drives attendance, and to a lesser extent drives ontrack handle," according to Savin, but also by two terrific 11-race cards that - for serious horseplayers, at least - easily took precedence over the sounds of Blondie on Saturday and Blood, Sweat and Tears on Sunday.

The Saturday crowd also was treated to an appearance by 2003 Kentucky Derby champion Funny Cide, who was schooled in the paddock between races. Funny Cide is being pointed toward a start in the Donn Handicap on Feb. 7.

Clearly, the most impressive weekend feat was turned in Saturday by Allen Jerkens, who has been training racehorses since 1950 but has seldom come closer to an afternoon of absolute perfection. Jerkens won with three of four starters, with his only loser, Bowman's Band, narrowly beaten in the Hal's Hope Handicap by stablemate Puzzlement. Martin Schwartz owns Bowman's Band, and Joseph Shields owns Puzzlement.

"You don't really like one client to beat another," Jerkens said Monday. "But if you think of yourself, you realize that if you're not training either of them, somebody else would be. Everybody likes to talk about that kind of situation, but who really knew my horses would be together like that? Weren't there other nice horses in the race? That stuff just happens."

Like Jerkens, trainer Steve Margolis also had a great start - winning the Mr. Prospector Handicap with his Breeders' Cup Sprint champion, Cajun Beat. Margolis also won with his only other Saturday starter, Dance Music.

Cajun Beat "came out of the race just fine," Margolis said Monday from Palm Meadows. "He really showed a lot of heart and determination. He has a great desire to win."

Veteran trainer Frank Brothers, who last raced a stable at Gulfstream in 1998, the year after he made headlines with Pulpit, enjoyed a happy return on Sunday, when a first-time starter named Madcap Escapade, which he trains, had the crowd buzzing with a 10-length win. Madcap Escapade, a 3-year-old filly by Hennessy, ran the six furlongs in a very swift 1:09.38, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 93.

Brothers, who has wintered at Fair Grounds in recent years, said he "wasn't fooled that she won, but I don't know if you ever think a first-timer will do something like that. First-timers can do anything on you. I did expect her to run well, but to say I knew she'd go in nine-and-change, that'd be wrong."

Madcap Escapade, overlooked at 16-1, is owned by Louisville, Ky., businessman Bruce Lunsford. Most of Brothers's 24-horse string is owned by Joe Allbritton's Lazy Lane Farms. "This is where Mr. Allbritton wanted to come this year," said Brothers.

Vickie Foley was yet one more trainer to get off to a fast start. Back with a Gulfstream string for the first time in nearly 20 years, when she was working closely with her father, Dravo, and brother, Greg, Foley was a winner with her first start of the meet when Tito's Beau won the fifth race Sunday. Foley then sent out Choctaw Charlie to finish second two races later. "That was a great way to start," she said.

Opening weekend had its somber moments, too.

Soon after Zakocity, owned by the late John Franks, won the sixth race Saturday, trainer Marty Wolfson recalled Franks as a "wonderful man . . . I couldn't be more sentimental about this."

A race later, Lord North, ridden by Cornelio Velasquez, went down in one of those scary spills that always quiets a crowd. Although Velasquez was able to get up, dust himself off, and win aboard Cajun Beat, Lord North had to be euthanized.

From a business perspective, there also was this downer: Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs continue to withhold their simulcast signals from each other because of a bitter contractual dispute. Largely because of the rift, Gulfstream was down about $350,000 in intrastate handle on Saturday alone, and that missing handle contributed to a two-day, all-sources bottom line ($17.6 million) that was down by several percentage points compared to last year.

"There are some other factors in being slightly down, including the loss of one major bettor in North Dakota, but there's no doubt the loss of the Tampa market affects us," said Savin. "We feel, however, that we are bargaining in good faith with them and that our standing offer is an equitable one and reflects the true value of our signal in an open market."

Despite that and other lesser problems, opening weekend clearly was a good one for Gulfstream overall.

"Our numbers fly in the face of the industry standard, which for the last several years has been stagnant or negative trends for live racing," said Savin. "Obviously we're hoping to set a tone for a whole meet with what we did this weekend."