01/13/2005 1:00AM

Last circuit notable at Gulfstream


One of the things most attractive about playing a track like Gulfstream Park is the composition of its races. Starters come from everywhere - horses based in Florida year-round are regularly joined in races with invaders from Kentucky, New York, and other parts of the Northeast. Sometimes a shipper from California, Canada, or Europe shows up in the entries.

The new blood makes for interesting handicapping. Instead of seeing the same tired races day in and day out, horseplayers are exposed to new faces and new challenges.

One of those challenges involves determining which region's horses hold the edge. By getting a handle on a track pecking order, a bettor is in a better position to gauge class.

Differences in the class of a region's horses are best reflected by how its top-level horses perform. Consider the early results from the current Gulfstream meet. Through the first five days of racing, there have been 15 races for allowance and stakes horses, an average of three a day. Of the 157 starters in these races, 69 came to Gulfstream after having last raced at Calder.

Although they accounted for 44 percent of the starters, these Calder runners won only 2 of the first 15 allowances and stakes of the Gulfstream meet. The two winners were High Fly, who paid $8.20 in taking the Aventura, and Big Booster, who paid $16.80 in winning a second-level allowance on turf.

By contrast, horses who last raced in New York comprised 30 of the 157 starters in these upper-level races, or 19 percent. Yet they won 7 of the 15 races. Four were favored, but three paid $10 or more - including Union Place, who paid $21.80 in winning the Ft. Lauderdale, and Gipsy Limits, who lit the board by paying $42.20 in scoring in an entry-level allowance.

As for the other allowance and stakes winners, three came by way of Kentucky - which was represented with 25 of the 157 starters. One winner apiece came from New Jersey, Canada, and Britain - places that were represented with few starters.

The news was brighter for Calder runners in straight maiden races. Four of the six maiden special weight winners over the first week came by way of Calder. The other two had previously raced at Aqueduct.

Paradox on turf

A little more than a week into the meet, the Gulfstream turf course has played faster than a golf green on the PGA tour. In a few notable examples, Mr. Light ran a mile in a world-record 1:31.41, Union Place won the 1 1/16-mile Fort Lauderdale in 1:38.26, and Move Those Chains raced 1 1/8 miles in 1:45.75 in winning a $32,000 claiming race.

Many horseplayers wrongfully assume that speed horses are at an advantage when a track is quick. That is not always the case. The results from the Gulfstream turf course this meet bear that out. Heading into Thursday's card, only two of 10 turf races at Gulfstream were won wire to wire.

Six of the 10 winners raced sixth or further back after the opening half-mile, with most racing approximately 3 1/2 to seven lengths off the pace.

I am curious to see if this profile continues in the coming weeks - sometimes such trends do not hold up over long periods. The inside rail on turf is moved regularly to protect the course, and jockeys adjust their style based on how a course is playing. If they see speed is not holding, they tend to reserve their mounts more, which creates slow-paced races and more favorable circumstances for those horses that do go to the front.

Day lightly used early

Heading into Thursday's card, Cornelio Velasquez and Edgar Prado are tied atop the jockey standings. What I find most striking about the rider standings, however, is to find that Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day had ridden only six horses during the first five days of the Gulfstream meet, winning with one of his mounts.

Day has a good opportunity, though, in the $60,000 Lure Stakes on Saturday at Gulfstream, getting the mount aboard the Nick Zito-trained Gulch Approval.

A New York invader with established graded form, he may outclass his rivals - even following a layoff dating back to October. Last year he ran a number of quality races in short turf routes, winning two stakes and placing third behind

Mr O'Brien in the Kelso Breeders' Cup Handicap at Belmont in the fall.