01/05/2011 4:31PM

Meet opens with perfect weather, close finishes

Bob Coglianese
Gulfstream Park opened its 79-day meet on Wednesday.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – There were only six horses in the nondescript field of conditioned-claiming fillies, and yet far more fans crowded around the picturesque walking ring than what might otherwise be expected. It was the first race on the first day of the 2011 meet at Gulfstream Park, and the anticipation was plainly tangible.

Amadorable, a maiden competing outside of her condition, was up in the last jump to win the six-furlong race, one hotly contested to the final yards. There were four horses across the track with 70 yards to go, with Dreamingof Lillian forging to the front late, only to be nipped on the wire.

A frantic tone had been firmly established. Thirty minutes later, the results were even tighter, with Midnight Thunder benefiting from a perfect head-bob to nail Fly South by less than an inch. Remarkably, the third race was a close one, too, with Naphtali rallying late to edge past Duke of Doom to prevail by a half-length.

“It’s exciting already, huh?” asked Tim Ritvo, the new vice president in charge of racing operations for track owner MI Developments. “We’ve got a nice crowd for a Wednesday, probably 5,000 or more, and we’re going to crush the comparable Wednesday from the first week last year. We’ve got a lot of great racing ahead of us with all the 3-year-olds we have here this winter, so we’re looking forward to a terrific meet.”

The weather could not have been much better for an opener that, because of the way the calendar fell, was held two days later than the traditional Jan. 3 date. High temperatures on a bright afternoon hovered near 80 and were moderated by a steady breeze. Young families and sightseers mixed with grizzled veterans, including retired Hall of Fame jockeys Bobby Ussery and Walter Blum. All in all, the opening was welcomed by both the snowbirds who flock to this winter haven and the everyday horseplayers who surely had wearied of eight-plus months of racing across town at Calder.

Finally, the fourth race was a blowout, with the class-dropping S.S. Stone drawing off to win by eight lengths for trainer Nick Zito, who came right back to take the fifth race with front-running Doctor Peach. The nine-race program continued to unfold without incident, with the $100,000 Old Hat serving as the feature later in the day.

The meet opened with the surrounding Gulfstream Village developed to a higher capacity than ever before; it has been more than seven years since the old grandstand was razed to make way for a casino and a modern mix of high-end restaurants, stores, and entertainment venues. A number of new wagering options and increments also have been put into effect here, including a 10-cent pick six and a 50-cent pick five.

The opener was the first of 79 days at a meet that runs through April 24. The annual highlight, the $1 million Florida Derby, is set for April 3, marking the first time it will be run on a Sunday.