01/02/2006 1:00AM

Ready or not here it comes

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Due to construction delays, the grandstand isn't quite ready for Wednesday's opening day, but many well-known horses and stables surely are.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Gulfstream Park may look more like a construction site than a racetrack when its 2006 meeting opens Wednesday. But the inconvenience created by a grandstand that will be only partially completed on opening day should have little effect on a racing program that figures to be stronger and classier this winter than it has been in many years.

The effects of inclement weather, notably hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, delayed construction on Gulfstream Park's new grandstand several times this summer and fall. Wednesday's opener will go off as scheduled with eight races, but track management has postponed Friday's program to allow work crews added time to prepare the facility for Saturday's card, which features the first three stakes of the new meet. The Friday program will be made up on April 3.

Barn areas and training centers throughout south Florida again are filled to capacity and this year will be home to many new stables, including several that have relocated here because of the closing of Fair Grounds in Louisiana. Among the trainers who have relocated here are Dallas Stewart, Wayne Catalano, Dale Capuano, and Paul McGee. Also, Tim Ritchey and Eoin Harty will be stabled regularly in the area for the first time in 2006.

"Quality-wise we'll be better overall than in recent years, especially with the addition of some new trainers who should help the program quite a bit," said racing secretary Dave Bailey. "There seems to be a lot more interest from horsemen wanting to come down and get a foot in the door knowing that with the additional simulcasting and the coming of slot machines purses are really going to increase here in the future."

Bailey said he is expecting not only better quality but also bigger fields.

"We've got Flower Alley, Bandini, Bellamy Road, and Funny Cide among a great group of older horses stabled in the area," he said.

"I also received 136 early-bird nominations for the Florida Derby as opposed to only 109 last year, among them First Samurai and Private Vow, both of whom are training locally. We averaged 8.5 starters per race last winter, and I'm hoping to increase that figure this year, especially since I'll be able to start the meet writing three turf races a day rather than the two a day I carded last January."

Nine of the nation's top 10 money-winning trainers in 2005 will compete here this winter, led by two-time defending Gulfstream training champion Todd Pletcher. Also here are Bobby Frankel, Steve Asmussen, Nick Zito, Richard Dutrow Jr., Bill Mott, Scott Lake, Dale Romans, and Christophe Clement.

Pletcher is a strong favorite to defend his title successfully with over 100 horses spread among the Palm Meadows training facility, Palm Beach Downs, and Payson Park. Pletcher's vast stable is loaded in almost every category and it includes such highly regarded older horses as Flower Alley, Magna Graduate, Bandini, and Indian Vale - along with a plethora of promising 3-year-olds, led by Grade 2 winner Bluegrass Cat and the Grade 1-winning filly Adieu.

Zito dominated the major 3-year-old races here in 2005 and figures to be a key player again this year. He also has the top older handicap runners Commentator, Andromeda's Hero, and Seek Gold in the barn. Zito is also eagerly awaiting the return of Bellamy Road, the beaten favorite in last year's Kentucky Derby, who could run here before the meet ends on April 23.

The jockey colony, as always, will be first-class and includes five of the top six money-winning riders in 2005 - John Velazquez, Edgar Prado, Jerry Bailey, Rafael Bejarano, and Javier Castellano.

As usual, 3-year-old racing highlights the stakes program with the focal point of the meet being the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby on April 1. Saturday's one-mile Aventura Stakes begins the lucrative Florida Derby series, which also includes such important graded races as the Hutcheson, Holy Bull, Swale, and Fountain of Youth.

Older horses are being pointed toward a pair of Grade 1 races, the Donn Handicap on Feb. 4 and the Gulfstream Park BC Handicap on the turf on March 4. Most of the stakes are packed into five multi-stakes programs, including the Sunshine Millions on Jan. 28.

The opening-day feature is a $37,000 allowance race for older horses on the turf.

Key contenders in the 12-horse field are Settle Up, who ran third in Calder's Grade 3 Tropical Turf Handicap; Jockey's Dream, a Group 1 winner in Brazil; and Ecclesiastic.

Meet highlights

DATERACEPURSE
Jan. 28Sunshine Millions Distaff$500,000
Jan. 28Sunshine Millions Turf500,000
Jan. 28Sunshine Millions Sprint300,000
Jan. 28Sunshine Millions Oaks250,000
Feb. 4Donn Handicap (G1)500,000
Feb. 25Gulfstream BC Turf (G1)250,000
March 4Fountain of Youth (G2)300,000
April 1Florida Derby (G1)1,000,000