12/03/2015 2:06PM

Expectations high as championship meet opens

Barbara D. Livingston
The Gulfstream Park championship meet opens Saturday with the annual Claiming Crown card.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – For horseplayers, winter in south Florida officially begins Saturday with the opening of the 2015-16 Gulfstream Park championship meet. The 90-day session runs through April 3.

Buoyed by the success of the recently concluded Gulfstream Park West meet, held eight miles west at the former Calder Race Course, as well as a horse population full to overflowing throughout the area and a record stakes schedule anchored by the $1 million Florida Derby, track officials are expecting another banner season. The weather, as always, will be key to the bottom line.

With the once-traditional Jan. 3 opening now long gone, the meet will kick off with a soft schedule in December. There are four Grade 3 races carded through New Year’s Day before the meet really picks up momentum in January.

Saturdays again will be the main focus of the stakes program this year, with a series of big-event days that include the Sunshine Millions on Jan. 16, the Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 30, the Donn Handicap on Feb. 6, and the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 27. It all culminates April 2 on Florida Derby Day, which offers seven graded stakes worth $2.3 million.

“This is the fourth or fifth year we’ve run in December, and I think it was a great decision, business-wise, substituting the December dates for April,” said P.J. Campo, vice president of racing for track operator The Stronach Group and general manager of Gulfstream Park. “The Claiming Crown is a great betting card and a great way to start the meet. The stakes schedule overall is similar to last year. Our focus is to try to grow the big days and take them to a level they’ve never been before. We always had the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, but this year we’ve got the Sunshine Millions back to over $1 million in purses, while the Holy Bull and Donn cards have continued to grow into very big days for us.”

Campo said he had more than 4,000 applications for stalls and expects to maintain, if not increase, the average field size, which exceeded 8.5 starters per race last winter.

“If I had more stalls, I could fill them, and we have all the right guys here, all the best trainers, and all the best jockeys,” said Campo. “Purses will average between $400,000 and $420,000 daily, including stakes, again this year starting Jan. 1. I think anything between 8.5 to 9 starters per race is great, and I’d love to be able to get to nine if I can this winter.”

Todd Pletcher once again figures to be the dominant force in the training standings while in search of a record 13th consecutive title. He was followed a year ago in the standings by Jorge Navarro, Mike Maker, Chad Brown, and Wesley Ward, and they’ll all be back again in full force. Brown will bring his largest-ever contingent. Mark Casse has doubled his stall allotment this season to 80 at Palm Meadows. His stable includes Kentucky Derby prospects Airoforce and Conquest Big E.

Javier Castellano will be heavily favored to win his fifth straight Gulfstream riding title. Castellano dominated the standings with 114 victories a year ago, including 16 stakes wins, with 11 in graded races. He also won two of the three Grade 1 races here in 2015 – the Donn Handicap with Constitution and the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap with Mshawish, both for Pletcher. Castellano will be challenged once again by a stellar colony which includes John Velazquez, Joel Rosario, Paco Lopez, Luis Saez, Edgard Zayas, Edgar Prado, Julien Leparoux, and Corey Lanerie.

Airoforce and Conquest Big E. will be joined locally this winter by a number of other leading Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby hopefuls, including Remsen winner Mohaymen for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, Gift Box, and Brody’s Cause.

The 20-cent Rainbow 6, which has produced life-changing payoffs the past few racing seasons, will continue to highlight Gulfstream’s menu of multi-race and exotic wagers. The Rainbow 6, which yielded a $6.6 million jackpot in May 2014, will be joined on the betting menu by an additional pick five and the rolling high five, both of which proved popular additions to the betting menu this fall at Gulfstream Park West.