04/22/2002 12:00AM

Harlan's Holiday tops a meet to remember


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The 90-day, 2002 Gulfstream Park meeting concludes Wednesday, ending the longest and one of the most controversial meets in the track's 58-year history.

Wednesday's card consists of nine races, seven of which will be run under allowance conditions. Racing on the south Florida circuit moves to Calder Race Course on Friday.

The deregulation of racing dates in Florida allowed Frank Stronach's Magna Entertainment to extend Gulfstream Park's 2002 session more than five weeks beyond its traditional March 16 closing. But there were troubles right from the start, with entries regularly closing late and field sizes down, averaging only 8.2 starters per race compared to 8.9 starters the previous year. As a result, the overall handle suffered, off more than $1 million per day, or nearly 12 percent, from the previous winter.

A concert program also proved unpopular among many horsemen and regular racing fans. A Bryan Adams concert on Jan. 5 created such a traffic jam in the vicinity of the track that it prevented several trainers from arriving on the grounds in time to saddle their horses.

The turf course, hurt by unseasonably warm weather as well as an additional five weeks of use, also came under criticism, from both horsemen and jockeys, who refused to ride over the course several times during the meet.

One of the biggest controversies of the session came about after the stewards meted out a harsh 30-day suspension to jockey Eibar Coa for what they called "extremely rough riding" aboard Mr. Livingston during the running of the Ft. Lauderdale Handicap on Jan. 26. The suspension was eventually reduced to 15 days, although the uncertainty of his status following the original ruling cost Coa a winning mount on Booklet in the Grade 1 Fountain of Youth Stakes.

The meet was also injury-plagued. The most notable mishap occurred during training hours on Jan. 26, when Yvonne Azeff, an assistant to trainer John Ward, was injured in an accident that left her in a coma for nearly a month. Several jockeys also went to the sidelines because of race-related accidents, the most serious of which occurred on Feb. 27, when Rosemary Homeister Jr. broke her right arm in a spill shortly after the start of the second race. She did not return for the remainder of the meet.

While the overall quality of the daily racing programs was criticized by fans and media, there was no questioning the strength of the 3-year-old and handicap divisions. Harlan's Holiday emerged the Kentucky Derby favorite following his victory in the meet's cornerstone race, the $1 million Florida Derby, and a subsequent triumph in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Those wins avenged earlier losses by Harlan's Holiday to Booklet in the Holy Bull and Grade 1 Fountain of Youth stakes.

The 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos launched his 2002 campaign here this winter, but was forced into retirement after only one start. Despite Monarchos's absence, the fields for the Grade 1 Donn and Gulfstream Park handicaps were outstanding - with Mongoose upsetting Red Bullet to win the Donn and Hal's Hope, the 2000 Florida Derby winner, winning in a field that included four Grade 1 winners in the Gulfstream Park Handicap. Three-time Grade 1 winner Sir Bear finished third in defense of his title in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, after having won the Grade 3 Skip Away Handicap earlier in the meet.

Prado won his first Gulfstream Park riding title, winning 82 races, despite accepting no mounts here after March 31. He also won five stakes, including the Donn and Florida Derby.

Bill Mott won his ninth Gulfstream training title in the last 10 years, easily defeating runner-up Mark Hennig. Hennig was the leading stakes-winning trainer, sweeping the final two stakes on the schedule last weekend, for his fourth and fifth stakes wins of the meet.