08/07/2003 11:00PM

Palm Meadows improves facility for second season

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BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. - When Palm Meadows, Gulfstream Park's state-of-the-art training center, opened for its inaugural season last winter, horsemen were not sure what to make of a facility that was only partially completed and lacked most of the amenities they were accustomed to at other racetracks.

When the same horsemen return for the 2004 meeting, they may be pleasantly surprised at the improvements that have been made since last spring. Palm Meadows, about 45 miles north of Gulfstream, is scheduled to open on Nov. 28.

Construction on all five dormitories and the track kitchen/recreation center is under way and scheduled for completion by mid-October. The seven-furlong, 176-foot-wide turf course is 65 to 70 percent covered in grass. Work is proceeding as planned on the construction of 16 new barns, which will bring stabling capacity at Palm Meadows to 1,440 horses this winter.

Overseeing the project for the Magna Entertainment Corp. is Gary Van Den Broek, one of many people responsible for making Palm Meadows a success in its first year despite some problems getting the facility open in time for the 2003 Gulfstream meet.

"Things were a little rough the first year, but the horsemen were unbelievably cooperative, and we made it through just fine," Van Den Broek said. "And I think they'll be really pleased to see what we've accomplished here during the off-season."

Last winter, workers were housed at a Motel 6 about 12 miles from Palm Meadows and were driven to and from work each day by shuttle bus. This year, grooms and hot walkers will be housed in four 52-unit dormitories adjacent to the barn area. There will also be an "upscale" housing complex for trainers and assistant trainers that will contain 30 living quarters of 500 square feet apiece.

The track kitchen will include a recreation area and trainers' lounge, including shower facilities as well as a pavilion area near the finish line where trainers can watch horses work in the morning.

In addition to its one-mile main track and the turf course, Palm Meadows will open its European-style one-mile jogging course this winter.

Unlike last year, when stall space was free, horsemen will be charged $10 per day per stall to stable at Palm Meadows. They will receive a $300 rebate toward stall bills for each horse started during the 2004 Gulfstream meeting.

Palm Meadows drew rave reviews from horsemen during the 2003 Gulfstream Park meeting. The facility's most notable resident was Funny Cide, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness after wintering at Palm Meadows with trainer Barclay Tagg. Kentucky Oaks winner Bird Town also stabled at the facility with trainer Nick Zito.

Trainer Todd Pletcher had 40 horses stabled at Palm Meadows last year, among them Strong Hope, recent winner of the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes, and Balto Star, upset winner of the Grade 1 United Nations Handicap. He hopes to be granted at least 60 stalls this winter.

"Things worked out really well there last year," Pletcher said by phone from Saratoga. "The track surface was good, and horses ran well off it. The most important thing is that they all came out of there in good shape."

Trainer H. James Bond - a longtime fixture at Payson Park Training Center, 90 miles north of Gulfstream - took one barn at Palm Meadows in 2003 but plans to move his entire operation there this season.

"It's a phenomenal place," Bond said. "The track was well maintained, the horses out of there ran great both at Gulfstream and after we shipped to New York, and physically they all stayed together quite well."