11/28/2013 12:15PM

Gulfstream Park opens 75th anniversary meeting

Barbara D. Livingston
Gulfstream Park opens its winter-spring meeting on Saturday with two $100,000 stakes, the Pulpit and the Wait a While.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Happy 75th birthday, Gulfstream Park.

After adding another chapter to the track’s already illustrious history by conducting its first-ever summer meeting earlier this year, Gulfstream Park will kick off its 75th anniversary season Saturday with the opening of the 2013-14 winter meet, which runs through April 6.

Gulfstream ran an abbreviated four-day session when it opened its doors for the first time on Feb. 1, 1939. The upcoming meet – dubbed the championship meeting – will consist of 90 programs. The meet will feature 63 stakes races worth a record $10.75 million in purses, including 34 graded races topped once again by the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby on March 29.

Saturday’s opening will be the earliest in track history for its championship session and should be buoyed from the momentum garnered by the inaugural summer meet, which began July 1 and ended last Sunday. The track will race Friday-Sunday for the first two weeks of December, Thursday-Sunday for the next two weeks, then Wednesday-Sunday for most of the rest of the season.

“The soft opening is by design,” said Tim Ritvo, Gulfstream’s president. “A lot of our horsemen tend not to come down until after Thanksgiving, so we are opening with just two cards the first weekend before building up to the Claiming Crown next week.”

Gulfstream hosted the Claiming Crown for the first time in 2012 and has expanded the program the second time around, offering eight stakes instead of seven and purses raised from $850,000 to $1 million.

Gulfstream will face competition for the first time during its championship meeting from crosstown rival Calder, which also is scheduled to race during the winter. But Ritvo said he does not think business or field size will be affected, despite the presence of another live meeting being conducted just eight miles away.

Gulfstream took two major steps to help increase its field sizes this year – constructing two new barns adjacent to the one-mile chute with the capacity to house 380 horses and not holding a Fasig-Tipton sale at the Palm Meadows training center, which freed up an additional 250 stalls for the entire winter.

“We’ll have more than 600 stalls available and filled this season that we have not had in the past,” Ritvo said. “And while 45 percent of our starters each winter used to come from Calder, most of those horsemen have already moved over and are stabled with us now. So we feel pretty comfortable that field size will not be an issue.”

Last year, Orb became the 22nd Florida Derby starter to also win the Kentucky Derby, and there should be no shortage of 3-year-old talent on hand again this winter. The Florida Derby on March 29 will again anchor the richest day of racing at Gulfstream this season, with seven other graded stakes and a total of more than $2 million in purses.

Florida Derby Day is one of many multiple-stakes cards scheduled throughout the meet, beginning with the Claiming Crown on Dec. 7 and continuing into 2014 with the Sunshine Millions on Jan. 18, Donn Handicap Day on Feb. 8, and the Fountain of Youth card on Feb. 22. The Eclipse Awards will be held on the grounds for the second consecutive season on Jan. 18, with a 75-year anniversary bash scheduled for Feb. 1.

Javier Castellano, who has captured the last two Gulfstream jockey titles, will anchor the strongest riding colony in the country, which is expected to include the top 12 riders in the standings from a year ago. Julien Leparoux also will return to south Florida this winter after a one-year absence.

Todd Pletcher will be heavily favored to capture an unprecedented 11th consecutive Gulfstream training title, despite facing competition from most of the top New York-based stables and many other high-profile outfits from the Midwest.

The popular Mucho Macho Man, who is trained by Ritvo’s wife, Kathy Ritvo, is on the grounds and back in training following his victory early this month in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Although his connections have yet to make any definite plans for his 2014 campaign, Mucho Macho Man could make a start here this winter, either in the Sunshine Millions Classic or the Grade 1 Donn.

P.J. Campo left the New York Racing Association to become director of racing for track owner the Stronach Group earlier this month. He will oversee the local racing program throughout the meet before taking on expanded duties for the Stronach Group early next season.

Among the notable changes to the daily wagering fare is an increase in the minimum wager for the popular Rainbow 6 from 10 cents to 20 cents, which will allow bettors in Canada to participate in the wager. The percentage of the pool to be paid back for consolation payoffs will also increase from 60 percent to 70 percent daily.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have year-to-year growth for the last three winters, although obviously having competition in the market this year puts us in unchartered waters,” Ritvo said. “Gulfstream has come a long way in 75 years, but we believe the best is yet to come.”