01/02/2006 12:00AM

Hurricanes delay track's grand makeover

The renovated Gulfstream Park apron can be seen as construction work continues on the state-of-the-art grandstand.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - For the second straight winter, opening day at Gulfstream Park will be shrouded in uncertainty and a refuge for only curiosity-seekers and the most die-hard racing fans. But unlike last year, when patrons were herded together in temporary quarters throughout the entire meet, the 2006 season will get better with every passing day as Gulfstream Park's new state-of-the-art grandstand nears completion, ushering in a new era for south Florida racing.

Construction crews have been working overtime just to have the new building operational on Wednesday, and for those fans who decide to attend opening day, expectations for even the most routine creature comforts should not run too high. Only half of the first floor will be available for occupancy, and just 540 of the 900 seats on the second level will be open. The 900 stadium seats that surround the walking ring in the rear of the building will be ready Wednesday, however, along with a temporary structure housing refreshment stands and mutuel windows on the north side of the building.

Admission to the grounds and parking will be free throughout the meet, but a $10 fee will be charged to enter the first floor. Once inside, there is an additional $5 charge for betting cubicles and $10 for cubicles with private television sets. It will also cost $10 to purchase a seat on the second level. Seats around the walking ring are free.

While racing fans will endure a number of inconveniences on opening day and likely through much of the opening month of the 83-day session, the finished product should be worth the wait. Once completed, the Gulfstream grandstand will be one of the most spectacular racing complexes in the country - the centerpiece of an entertainment center that within the next several years will also include retail stores, movie theaters, and residential units.

"We lost two full working weeks due to Hurricane Wilma alone, which with double shifting is like losing four weeks," said Gulfstream Park president Scott Savin. "It's put us in a position where we'll be opening with limited facilities, and believe me, I can't overstate the Herculean efforts all our construction teams put forth just to have us able to open Wednesday.

"But when all the work is completed," Savin added, "which, if all goes according to plan, should be by the middle of February, we guarantee our guests that their patience will be rewarded. Gulfstream Park will have a different look than it had in the past and will be the finest racing facility in the world."

According to Savin, the remainder of the first floor should be available shortly after the opening. The second-floor dining room, what he terms the "racing room," is scheduled to open in time for Sunshine Millions Day on Jan. 28. Four additional "upscale" restaurants in the building will slowly be phased in during February, including Tickets Sports Theatre, a 500-seat, tiered dining area with a grand stage that will feature national touring acts, as well as an in-house interactive show.

The 17 luxury suites on the third level are expected to be ready by Feb. 10.

"We will offer restaurants and food service so strong people will come here for the dining experience as much as the racing," said Savin. "By mid-meet we should be hitting on all cylinders, which is where we would have been on opening day if not for the delays caused by hurricanes Katrina and Wilma."