01/01/2008 1:00AM

New faces at Gulf as changes roll on


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - From a quality standpoint, Gulfstream Park is coming off one of the best seasons in track history. Five reigning Breeders' Cup winners, including 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor, raced at Gulfstream in 2007, as did Curlin, the likely successor to that title.

The quality of racing figures to be high once again during the 2008 Gulfstream meet, which opens Thursday, but the track has newcomers in key racing positions who face several challenges - trying to increase field size and maintaining a purse structure that has suffered from disappointing slot-machine revenue.

Gulfstream has been making numerous improvements to the facility since the conclusion of the 2007 meet. They include the addition of the relocated South Beach restaurant Christine Lee's, state-of-the-art luxury boxes on the second level of the grandstand, revamped park areas on the north and south sides of the grandstand where people can view and bet the races, and the new Finish Line Casino, a 6,000-square-foot facility with slots and parimutuel machines.

These projects continue the transformation of Gulfstream Park from racetrack to entertainment complex, a project that began after the 2004 meeting and continues with the construction of shops, offices, condominiums, and a hotel.

New racing secretary Bill Couch and new director of racing Bernie Hettel take over from the departed Dave Bailey, who held both positions. They will be stressing quantity along with the usual quality at the 89-day meet.

"Maximizing field sizes is going to be our top priority this winter," said Couch, who is also the racing secretary at Thistledown in Ohio, which like Gulfstream is owned by Magna Entertainment Corp. Couch said he is trying to fulfill the wishes of Bill Murphy, who begins his second season as president and general manager of Gulfstream Park. "That's what Murph brought me down for."

Last year, Gulfstream averaged 8.6 horses per race, and Couch said he is hoping for 9.2 to 9.5 per race this meet.

One way Couch hopes to increase field size is to attract more Calder-based runners. He is writing one race per day restricted to Florida-breds, beginning with Thursday's opening-day feature, the $75,000 South Beach Stakes.

Couch and Hettel must deal with a large purse overpayment left over from the 2007 meet. Overnight purses were increased 17 percent last year in conjunction with the opening of the new slots casino at the track. But when business in the casino did not approach original projections, purses ended up being overpaid by several million dollars.

In an effort to maintain overnight purses at last year's level - $215,000 to $220,000 - when the new meet begins, Gulfstream trimmed the stakes program and moved some races around. Since the end of last year's meet, the overpayment has been reduced to under $1 million, Murphy said, which has given him hope that purses could grow before the meet ends on April 20.

"If field size is strong and business is good, there is no reason why purses couldn't increase before the end of the meet," he said.

Perhaps the most notable change to the stakes schedule was lengthening the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes from a mile to 1 3/16 miles and moving it from its traditional spot in January to April 12.

"Moving the Holy Bull until mid-April gives horsemen one last chance to earn graded stakes money for their potential Kentucky Derby candidates while also giving them an alternative for up-and-coming 3-year-olds who might not quite be ready to compete in a race like the Florida Derby two weeks earlier," said Couch.

As usual, the $1 million Florida Derby remains the marquee event on the schedule and will again be decided five weeks before the Kentucky Derby, on March 29. Other major races include the Grade 1 Donn Handicap (Feb. 2), the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Handicap (March 1), the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes (Feb. 24), and the Sunshine Millions (Jan. 26).

Among the top runners stabled in the area and expected to compete at Gulfstream this winter are Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and likely Eclipse Award champion War Pass and other top 3-year-old prospects Tale of Ekati, Ready's Image, Anak Nakal, Court Vision, and Tropical Derby winner Cowboy Cal. The exciting Daaher could use the Donn as a springboard to the Dubai World Cup. Dream Rush is back for another season, while Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Ginger Punch is among the potential candidates for the Sunshine Millions Distaff. Track management is also hoping Curlin could make a return visit to Gulfstream for the Donn if he remains in training during 2008.

Quite a Bride and Mystic Soul lead a full field of 12 Florida-bred fillies and mares in the 1 1/16-mile South Beach on the turf.

Quite a Bride finished third behind Vacare and Precious Kitten in the Grade 2 First Lady Stakes at Keeneland in her last start and won three stakes during 2007.

Mystic Soul returns to the East Coast after spending last year in California with trainer Jeff Mullins. Mystic Soul, who now resides in trainer Wesley Ward's barn, has not started since finishing third in Hollywood Park's Grade 2 Honeymoon Breeders' Cup Handicap on June 9.