12/17/2004 12:00AM

A place for bettors, horses, hard hats

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Gary Rothstein
The progression of Gulfstream Park's renovations include completion of the rebuilt and enlarged turf and dirt courses, the erection of temporary facilities for dining and betting, and in a shot taken Thursday, the inside of the Wagering Pavilion (above).

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Jockeys and exercise riders won't be the only ones wearing hard hats at Gulfstream Park when the track opens for its unique 2005 meeting on Jan. 3.

Construction workers might outnumber fans at Gulfstream, where the grandstand has been leveled and the winter meet will be conducted under temporary facilities that include two giant tents and a paddock that is closer to the quarter pole than it is to either the finish line or jockey quarters. Construction on the new, permanent grandstand, between the sixteenth pole and clubhouse turn, will commence shortly after racing ends each afternoon and then continue until about an hour before training begins the following morning.

The inconveniences that fans and horsemen will face are the result of a sweeping reconstruction project undertaken by Magna Entertainment Corp., the track's owner and the country's largest racing company. The project actually began several years ago with the construction of the Palm Meadows training center in Boynton Beach. Upon completion, the Gulfstream project will feature a state-of-the-art grandstand that is scheduled to open in January 2006.

The new one-mile turf course, slightly longer than the old grass course, is crowned to improve drainage, and a 1 1/8-mile main track, a furlong longer than the former dirt surface, has been completed. So have nine new barns, including two receiving barns, built to replace the 15 older barns that were torn down to accommodate the larger race courses.

A new dormitory is under construction and scheduled to open on Jan. 12.

Original plans for the clubhouse are being re-examined for the possibility of housing slot machines, which could become legal at the track as early as 2006. A referendum to approve slots in Broward County and neighboring Dade County is tentatively scheduled to be on the ballot in March 2005.

"The reconstruction of Gulfstream Park is a massive undertaking and all part of Frank Stronach's vision for Thoroughbred racing," track president Scott Savin said late last week. "It is a presentation in which the racing surfaces, barns, and living quarters for the backside help play as big a role in the project as do the actual facility and amenities that go along with it. Frank believes a first-class racetrack is not only about having a beautiful clubhouse but that all entities involved in operating the track must be treated equally."

Savin said Gulfstream will be able to accommodate approximately 3,000 patrons under protection of the temporary structures, but with a break in the weather, the track should be able to handle crowds of 10,000 to 12,000 that are expected on weekends.

Admission to the grounds and parking will be free throughout the meet. Savin said there will be a variety of sites providing concessions and wagering facilities for fans, including three open-air tents next to and behind the paddock.

There will be a $5 admission charge to the Wagering Pavilion and $20 to enter the Royal Palm Dining Pavilion ($25 on weekends).

Savin said most of the regular players as well as horsemen should be accommodated in the wagering and dining tents. There will also be a temporary turf club and big bettors room.

"We chose to open on a Monday because we are looking for a soft opening to work out some of the kinks that are inevitable in this type of situation," Savin said. "We will not make a lot of noise in the marketplace until the first weekend."

Under the circumstances, Savin fully expects ontrack attendance and handle to be down from previous seasons. But with the addition of the new turf course, which should allow racing secretary Dave Bailey to card up to four grass races a day by the end of January, and a horse population that could be the strongest in track history, Savin and Magna are hopeful they will recoup those losses with a strong simulcast product.

"The turf course has 11 different running lanes, which means if need be we could use the course regularly and not have to return to any single location for two weeks," said Savin. "That should give the grass ample time to rejuvenate and allow us to maximize field sizes on the turf, which is always a popular item for the bettors."

The new main track and barns are already drawing rave reviews from horsemen.

"If anybody complains about these barns or the racetrack, I'll take 25 more stalls," said trainer Barclay Tagg, who moved his entire stable back to Gulfstream this season after spending two winters at Palm Meadows. "You can say what you want about Frank Stronach, but as far as I'm concerned you won't find another racetrack owner who has committed the kind of money he has or provide the kind of amenities he has for the horsemen here and at Palm Meadows."

Trainer Nick Zito, who has horses at both Gulfstream and Palm Meadows, also had high praise for the new track.

"For my money, the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga has the best surface for training a horse of any track in the country, but from what I've seen here thus far, assuming nothing changes, this track has the potential to eventually be rated just as high," Zito said.