01/01/2004 12:00AM

Palm Meadows an instant hit

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BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. - When Magna Entertainment Corp. first proposed building the Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach several years ago, its goal was to provide a first-class training facility that would attract the highest caliber of horses.

But even Frank Stronach, Magna's chairman of the board and the driving force behind the construction of Palm Meadows, probably never dreamed the state-of-the-art training facility would become such an instant hit with horsemen or have such a positive impact on the 2004 Gulfstream Park meeting.

Palm Meadows opened last winter with only 800 of its 1,440 stalls available, and at first many horsemen were reluctant to accept their stalls. Trainers who reside near Gulfstream Park were faced with a 95-mile, 1 1/2-hour round-trip drive each day.

But by the time the 2003 meet ended, and Palm Meadows-based horses had won races at a dizzying pace, trainers based at the facility were singing the praises of their new winter home. None was more pleased with Palm Meadows than Barclay Tagg, who prepared Funny Cide for his Kentucky Derby and Preakness successes at Palm Meadows.

"This is without a doubt the finest racetrack I've ever trained over in my career," Tagg said earlier this week, while watching the training of one of the 34 horses he has stabled at Palm Meadows.

Word of Palm Meadows' wide and resilient racing surface and its other amenities spread quickly, and Gulfstream racing secretary Dave Bailey was besieged by stall requests for 2004 from most of the top barns on the East Coast as well as major stables in the Midwest and Canada. Trainers who had never before wintered in Florida were looking to race at Gulfstream this winter - some on the condition that they be given stall space at Palm Meadows. Several major stables that have been fixtures on the Gulfstream Park backstretch were looking to move their operations off the track for the first time.

"I'd say we probably have at least 200 horses down here this winter who wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Palm Meadows," said Scott Savin, Gulfstream Park's president and general manager.

Among the newcomers to south Florida in 2004, all of whom are stabled at Palm Meadows, are Kiaran McLaughlin, Jimmy Jerkens, Richard Dutrow Jr., Michael Dickinson, and Danny Vella, who trains for the Stronach stable.

Trainer Todd Pletcher has moved nearly his entire 75-horse operation from Gulfstream to Palm Meadows. Carl Nafzger, Dave Donk, Graham Motion, John Ward Jr., and Phil Serpe have all more or less abandoned their stalls at Gulfstream, while Nick Zito, Ken McPeek, Allen Iwinski, and Dale Romans are well-represented at both sites. H. James Bond, a mainstay at Payson Park for as long as one can remember, has moved his entire operation to Palm Meadows.

"It's just a first-class operation and the perfect place to train," said Bond. "Horses think they are in heaven training over this track. It kind of reminds you of Hialeah in its day."

Opening this year in conjunction with the 1 1/8-mile, 100-foot-wide main track are a seven-furlong, 176-foot-wide grass course as well as a European-style seven-furlong jogging path. The addition of new dormitories and a track kitchen gives Palm Meadows every amenity found at a top racetrack.

In fact, all that appears to be missing at Palm Meadows is a grandstand. And visitors to the site cannot help but notice that ample room is available to construct an adequately sized grandstand/clubhouse stretching from the eighth pole to beyond the finish line.

This has led many to speculate that the site of winter racing in south Florida might someday shift to Palm Meadows if Magna decides to sell off the valuable real estate on which Gulfstream Park is located. Speculation was fueled when Magna abruptly halted a major reconstruction project it had begun at Gulfstream in the spring of 2002.

But Savin is quick to dispel that notion.

"Palm Meadows wasn't built to be a racing facility," he said. "There are no plans to turn it into a racing facility, and by law there is no way it can be turned into a racing facility. Our main intention was to build a satellite facility to enhance the quality of racing at Gulfstream Park."

Savin also said a full-scale redevelopment project at Gulfstream is again under consideration and is one of Magna's major priorities this winter.

"All I can say at the moment is that we are actively pursuing a plan to redevelop the entire property, with racing at Gulfstream to be the centerpiece of the project," said Savin. "I think a lot more of the details will become finalized and disclosed by the end of this meet."