12/31/2007 12:00AM

New season at the starting gate

EmailHALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Gulfstream Park opens Thursday for its long winter meet with a slightly revised stakes schedule and the familiar expectations of producing major contenders in the 3-year-old and handicap divisions.

All the major Gulfstream races retain their usual spots on the calendar, with the Sunshine Millions set for Jan. 26, the Donn Handicap on Feb. 2, the Fountain of Youth on Feb.o24, and the Florida Derby on March 29. Many of the stakes that in past years supported these major events have been moved to help fill out other weekends throughout the meet.

The current leading contender for the 134th Kentucky Derby, War Pass, is among dozens of Derby hopefuls stabled in south Florida, although trainer Nick Zito has said the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner will not necessarily race at Gulfstream while based at the Palm Meadows training center.

Gulfstream racing officials are holding out hope that Curlin will race as a 4-year-old and ship from New Orleans for the Grade 1 Donn.

This will be the first Gulfstream meet with Bernie Hettel as director of racing and Bill Couch as racing secretary. Both have decades of experience as racing officials. Hettel has worked primarily in Kentucky and Couch in Ohio. Hettel was named to his new post in May and Couch was hired in July.

Although many starters at Gulfstream will be led over from their stalls on the backstretch, races also will be filled by horses from nearby destinations, most notably Palm Meadows in Boynton Beach, along with horses from Calder and the Palm Beach Downs and Payson Park training centers.

The jockey colony, as usual, will have the best from New York and elsewhere, including Edgar Prado, John Velazquez, Cornelio Velasquez, Kent Desormeaux, and Eibar Coa.

The leading trainers most likely will be Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott, while a handful of other big outfits should win plenty of races, including those of Zito, Kiaran McLaughlin, Ken McPeek, Steve Asmussen, and Dale Romans.

Mott, who enjoyed an exceptionally strong second half of 2007, appears to have a stranglehold on the opening-day feature, the new South Beach Stakes for Florida-bred fillies and mares. He will send out Quite a Bride as a big favorite in the $75,000 South Beach, a 1 1/16-mile turf race that drew more than the 12-horse limit. Quite a Bride was highly competitive in graded stakes in 2007 and therefore should be extremely tough given the Florida-bred restriction. The South Beach goes as the eighth of nine races on Thursday.

Five other stakes will be run on an eventful opening weekend - the $100,000 Canadian Turf Handicap on Friday; the $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes and $100,000 Mr. Prospector Handicap on Saturday; and the $150,000 Sabin Handicap and $100,000 Hal's Hope Handicap on Sunday.

This will be the fourth meet at Gulfstream since the old grandstand was torn down and the third since the new facility was mostly completed in early 2006. The track is in the process of implementing several improvements for this meet, including a more fan-friendly seating area to accommodate up to 3,000 spectators.

The meet runs through April 20, with racing held six days a week until mid-March, when Wednesdays join Tuesdays as dark days.