01/03/2005 12:00AM

Meet gets off to bumpy start

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The first-race field at Gulfstream parades before tents set up to accommodate fans. A tractor malfunction caused the race to be declared no contest.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The 2005 Gulfstream Park meeting got off to a rocky start Monday when two races were canceled, and some fans and horsemen voiced frustration with problems related to the track's ongoing renovation project.

This was the first day of racing at Gulfstream since the grandstand was torn down at the end of last year's meet and the main track and turf course were rebuilt. The grandstand will not be replaced until next year and fans watched and wagered from a variety of tents. The renovations also brought disruption to the normal routines of horsemen and jockeys.

The attendance was announced as 6,438. Attendance on opening day a year ago, which fell on a Saturday, was 21,501. Complaints by fans ranged from long lines at the betting windows and kiosks to a lack of seating throughout the plant. Many people were seen heading to the exits after the second race.

"Attendance is where we thought it would be under the circumstances," said Scott Savin, Gulfstream's president. "We have a couple of areas that need to be addressed over the next two days. We will have more wagering terminals outside the picnic area and the apron."

There were some bright spots on the day, most notably the two new racing surfaces, which were enlarged following the conclusion of the 2004 meet.

"I feel bad for the fans who had to put up with some of the inconveniences, but as far as the racetracks go I can't say enough about them," said Joe Bravo, who guided Close Quarters to a second-place finish over the turf in the afternoon's sixth race. "The conditions of both tracks are just great."

Neither race was canceled because of renovation-related problems.

In the first race, outriders instructed the jockeys to pull up their horses at the head of the stretch because of a delay in removing the starting gate from the track. The race was at 1 1/8 miles, or one lap around the track. The race was immediately declared a non-contest and all bets were refunded. A claim for Lord Burleigh, the 2-1 favorite, was also voided.

"It's a brand new John Deere tractor, but they had trouble getting it in gear," Savin said. "The stewards had to make a decision while the horses were on the backstretch and decided it was better to err on the side of caution even though the gate was gone by the time the horses hit the wire. It's an unfortunate way to get started, but better safe than sorry."

The incident happened during the first race on the job for newly appointed state steward Kevin Scheen, who replaced the recently retired Walter Blum. Scheen joined association stewards Charles Camac and Jeff Noe in the Gulfstream stand.

"Our decision was made around the three-eighths pole when it was apparent something had to be done or there was imminent risk to the horses and riders," said Scheen.

The decision to cancel the finale was made because track management feared several early delays would prevent the race from going off before darkness fell. In addition to the troubles in the opener, the second race was delayed when several riders were late coming to the paddock. Jockey Julio Felix's tack for Huatusco, his mount in race 2, had to be retrieved after it was mistakenly returned to the jockeys' room, which is nearly a quarter-mile from the new paddock, after the opening event.

The decision to cancel the 10th race did not sit well with many fans or horsemen.

"They think it's going to be dark, so they cancel the race at 2 o'clock. It's ridiculous," said Ronald Richter, the owner of Hardest Rock, one of the 12 runners scheduled to compete in the finale. "We worked this horse three days ago and shipped him down here all the way from Palm Meadows, and now they tell us we can't run. And they wonder why nobody wants to own horses."

Said Savin: "We made the decision to cancel the last race early today because we didn't want to push it and then get to the seventh race and have to cancel the pick six."

Several of the jockeys were visibly upset over what had happened in the first race. The riders also voiced their displeasure with being transported to and from the paddock and the jockeys' room in a mini-bus and the lack of any amenities, including drinking water, in the temporary jockey quarters set up adjacent to the paddock.

"Riding horses is dangerous enough without being put in a situation like the one that occurred in the first race," said Eibar Coa, who was aboard Strike Three in the opener. "We realized there would be problems the first day and we want to help. There are so many things that need to be fixed, and we plan to meet with management after the races to offer our suggestions."

Savin, who lauded the jockeys for their cooperation on the day, said that plans are in place to solve some of the opening-day problems, including giving the jockeys more room and making the fans and bettors more comfortable.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee