01/08/2007 12:00AM

Get ready to attack Gulfstream

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Although the newly rebuilt Gulfstream Park opened a year ago to mixed reviews because of some practical design issues, the slate has to be wiped clean for the 2007 season.

Management said they heard the complaints and made several changes that should improve comfort for horses, horsemen, and horseplayers.

Among other things, Gulfstream increased its extremely limited outdoor seating capacity of 1,100 by 750 free seats while adding needed room in the saddling enclosure. Admission and parking remain free, which always is a plus for bankroll-conscious players.

Hopefully, these changes adequately addressed key complaints. Yet, the principal reason to give Gulfstream a clean slate is the addition of hundreds of slot machines in the main grandstand and clubhouse.

These slots - granted by a Florida referendum after several years of political infighting - are expected to boost purses significantly for years to come. Horseplayers can only hope that the allotted space for slot machines and their legions of players will not cramp needed amenities that have been a desirable part of the race-going experience in south Florida for 60 years.

That aside, the 2007 race meet already has suffered the departure of Belmont stakes winner Jazil and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Invasor due to a herpes outbreak that has quarantined horses at the popular Payson Park training center. Hopefully, this will be a limited, short-term issue. But if the disease spreads, it could cut into the expected large fields as well as horses shipping in for major stakes.

In the meantime, horseplayers would do well to focus on a few general and Gulfstream-specific handicapping ideas during the first several weeks of 2007.

Because the universal birthday for all Northern Hemisphere horses is Jan. 1, 4-year-olds automatically depreciate in value from their former claiming levels against strictly 3-year-olds by about 25 to 33 percent. This means that any horse that previously was competitive against 3-year-old $30,000 claimers is now best spotted against $20,000 4-year-olds and up.

In races carded strictly for 4-year-olds, there is no depreciation from 2006 races for 3-year-olds, but some trainers, realizing that the days are numbered for such cushy race conditions, will drop their horses 20 percent or more to win a race and lose the horse before the next trainer has to drop the horse another 15 to 20 percent just to remain at the same competitive level vs. older.

For more insight into this specific, highly profitable handicapping situation that occurs every year, players can discover much more about various trainers' tendencies with dropdowns in the early part of a new year via the improved and highly useful Formulator 4.1 program. The new version of this unique research tool is available for free on the drf.com website.

Formulator, in fact, has become a terrific tool for quickly obtaining specific stats for dozens of highly refined trainer categories, including many stats to supplement the handful published in DRF past performances. In this vein I would recommend Dean Keppler's new book, "Trainer Angles," published by DRF Press, which specifically points out many ways to use Formulator for trainer pattern research and is a valuable addition to the handicapper's library.

The Gulfstream main dirt track, at nine furlongs in circumference, no longer is the extreme speed highway that dominated racing here a few years ago. In general, the main track plays fair to stalkers and mid-pack type runners as much as it does to front-running speed. Deep closers still face an uphill struggle to win races unless there is a suicidal speed duel and/or the track is drying out from a good dousing.

The turf course was extremely glib in 2005, but adjustments were made for 2006 that helped lengthen the root structure and bring the course into line with most other Eastern turf courses that place an accent on late acceleration. Indeed, there were few front-running winners on this course during the first month of the 2006 Gulfstream meet. This should be kept in mind when comparing turf form acquired at Calder, which accented early speed on several different days during the last month of its exceedingly long meet, which wears down its infield course.

In general, the old handicapping bromide, "Class on the grass," plays well at Gulfstream. Thus, in races for experienced horses, players should examine closely horses with good grass form achieved against clearly better competition in a previous form cycle. Many times at this meet, the "back-class horse" will outperform horses with slightly better recent speed figures moving up a notch in company.

Horses that have been absent, but have trained steadily at the tranquil Payson Park or Palm Meadows training centers do very well shipping in here when sent a distance of ground on turf and dirt. Christophe Clement and Hall of Famer Billy Mott are two of the outstanding trainers who annually specialize with fit absentees from Payson and Palm Meadows.

Other trainers who have high win percentages and good price-getting potential in a variety of situations include Marty Wolfson and Peter Walder in long-distance races on dirt and turf; Jose Garoffalo on the grass; and Ian Wilkes in sprints, especially seven-furlong sprints.

Of course, several high-percentage Gulfstream regulars, including Wayne Catalano, Richard Dutrow Jr., and Todd Pletcher, are notorious for minimal parimutuel value, yet they always command respect as potential keys in multi- race exotics. While Pletcher serves a 45-day suspension for a New York drug violation, his stable is being handled by assistant Anthony Sciametta, but it is doubtful that the barn's win percentage will drop significantly.

One high-percentage trainer who always points for Gulfstream with his 3-year-olds is Nick Zito, who is strong in Gulfstream allowance races over a distance of ground, on dirt and turf, except when the horse in question is making his turf debut. Zito, a versatile horseman who has won his share with experienced turf horses, has won only a handful of such races with turf newcomers nationwide in the past 10 years.

Among the top jockeys who are expected to be prominent this year are: John Velazquez, Cornelio Velasquez, Rafael Bejarano, Edgar Prado, Javier Castellano, Eddie Castro, Manoel Cruz, and the high-percentage apprentice jockey Jermaine Bridgmohan, who was so impressive in the final few months at Calder.

One of the principal highlights on the Gulfstream schedule is Sunshine Millions Day on Jan. 27, when Gulfstream and its sister track Santa Anita Park will each run five rich races for a mix of California- and Florida-breds worth more than $2 million. The other key race date on the schedule is March 31, date of the $1 million Florida Derby, a race that catapulted Barbaro to his victory in the 2006 Kentucky Derby.