11/29/2012 3:48PM

Gulfstream Park: Claiming Crown just first of several big events at new meeting

Tom Keyser
Gulfstream Park opens Saturday on the earliest date in its history.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – The 2011-12 Gulfstream Park meeting, fueled by an early December opening, was one of the most successful in the 73-year history of the track. The 2012-13 season, which kicks off Saturday and continues through April 5, figures to be even better.

In an effort to achieve that goal, Gulfstream will host two major events for the first time: Saturday’s Claiming Crown, the highlight of an opening-day program that is the earliest in track history, and the Eclipse Awards on Jan. 19. The Eclipse Awards ceremony will be held just hours after Gulfstream conducts one of its signature events, the Florida Sunshine Millions.

[CLAIMING CROWN: Get PPs, watch Saturday's Gulfstream card live]

And Gulfstream president and general manager Tim Ritvo said track chairman Frank Stronach has even more ambitious plans on the table – like playing host to a Breeders’ Cup within the next several years.

“Frank Stronach’s vision is for racing to go on forever at his facilities both here and in California, and we are continually trying to make improvements and showcase the plant as much as we can,” Ritvo said. “We’re hopeful events like the Claiming Crown, Eclipse Awards, and eventually the Breeders’ Cup will help grow the place out. I think what our customers see here now is still a Gulfstream Park in its infancy stages.”

Ritvo said he was elated at the success the December opening brought from a business standpoint a year ago, and there was no hesitation on his part to begin the current session even earlier.

“December was very good to us last year,” Ritvo said. “Although I must admit to being a little nervous because we’re opening a week earlier this time and a lot of our horsemen usually wait to ship after Thanksgiving, which also fell a little later on the calendar in 2011. That’s one reason we’re happy to have an event like the Claiming Crown to kick things off, to fill the void of a normal opening Saturday card.”

Ritvo also was proud of some of the other innovations that will greet fans when they return to Gulfstream this winter.

“We’ve added 32 boxes overlooking the track at the finish line that our customers have been asking for as well as the new Fountain Club Restaurant located adjacent to the walking ring, which will allow diners to watch the horses entering and leaving the paddock,” Ritvo said. “I’m also very excited about the fact we’ve brought the Cigar statue back out at the west end of the walking ring in the Village to help educate people on the great history of this track and some of the horses who have come out of here to win major races like the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup.”

Breeders’ Cup winners and potential champions will abound at Gulfstream this winter. Six horses who captured Breeders’ Cup races last month at Santa Anita will be stabled throughout the area and are expected to kick off their 2013 campaigns here during the season. They are: Fort Larned (Classic), Royal Delta (Ladies’ Classic), Little Mike (Turf), Shanghai Bobby (Juvenile), Trinniberg (Sprint), and Groupie Doll (Filly and Mare Sprint). Animal Kingdom, the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner and runner-up in the recent Breeders’ Cup Mile, also will race here this winter.

“This year happened to be great one for us,” Ritvo said. “The first four finishers from the Classic all raced at Gulfstream, and most of them will be back again in 2013. And we have six Breeders’ Cup winners who’ll begin a new campaign here. And then there’s always the 3-year-olds who’ll be our future Triple Crown horses. Being able to offer races at a mile and one-sixteenth for the first time last season, which helped get 3-year-olds around two turns a lot earlier than before, was a big plus for both our horsemen and our overall program.”

The jockey colony will be as strong, if not stronger, than ever this winter. Javier Castellano is back to defend his title. John Velazquez, who finished second in the standings a year ago, also is back. Gone are the third- and fourth-place finishers from the last meet, Julien Leparoux and Rajiv Maragh, but they will be replaced by such new faces as Joel Rosario, Robby Albarado, Corey Lanerie, and Gabriel Saez. Alan Garcia also will return after having spent the previous winter in New York.

Todd Pletcher once again figures to dominate the trainer standings in search of his 10th consecutive Gulfstream title. Among the prominent additions to local barn areas this winter are Jamie Ness and Rudy Rodriguez.

Purses will start out slightly above the level they were at for the beginning of the 2011-12 campaign. The stakes schedule is similar to a year ago, with the main event remaining the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby on March 30. That program offers five other graded stakes, including the Grade 2 Gulfstream Oaks for 3-year-old fillies.

“Our goal here is to continue to offer a great quality of racing, to be the Saratoga of the south, a place where the top trainers will continue to come each winter to race and plan out their year,” Ritvo said.