10/02/2001 11:00PM

Savin hopes longer means better


ELMONT, N.Y. - Floridians can anticipate a winter racing season without parallel.

Last month's terrorist attack in New York is said to be a factor in the current weakness of the national economy, and particularly in tourism and travel, both vital elements in the fiscal health of resort areas like Florida. Hialeah is not expected to race in 2002, and its dates have been absorbed by Gulfstream Park and Calder. Gulfstream will race an additional 27 days, its winter-spring meeting extending to April 24. With Hialeah closed, its 1,600 stalls will not be available to bolster fields at Gulfstream, as in the past.

"There will be changes," Gulfstream president Scott Savin said, "but our outlook is brighter. Our Jan. 3 opener is still three months away and the financial scene could be improved by then. There is also the weather factor, which affects south Florida to a greater degree than some other resort areas. Bad weather up north usually means more business down here, and this has been the pattern, in good times and bad.

"The 27 additional racing days should make the 2002 meeting the biggest in Gulfstream history," Savin said. "I'm confident we will be able to operate with the horses we stable at Gulfstream plus those at Calder, and if it is a little tight at times, it will be just for this season. We've received a work permit to begin construction of 1,900 stalls at the training center we're building at Boynton Beach."

Savin is also encouraged by the news that the new Diplomat Hotel, under construction the past two years on the ocean about a mile from the track, will open in mid-January, with 1,200 state-of-the-art rooms. The Diplomat is to be the scene of the Eclipse Awards dinner, racing's premier social event, in February.

The longer race meeting has prompted some revisions of the stakes schedule. In an effort to enhance the prestige of the Gulfstream Park Handicap, the purse for the 1 1/4-mile feature has been boosted from $200,000 to $300,000 and it has been scheduled several weeks later than in past years, on March 30. Another important change involves the introduction of the $250,000 Aventura for

3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles on April 6. The Aventura is designed for late-developing 3-year-olds who aren't ready for the Florida Derby on March 16 but still have aspirations for the classics.

Because some stables inevitably ship north with the approach of spring, live racing at Gulfstream will be cut from six days weekly to five days following the running of the Florida Derby.

The outlook for 2002 at another resort course, Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., is cautiously optimistic, according to general manager Eric Jackson.

"Last week I attended a meeting of state tourism officials ," Jackson said, "and the consensus was that Arkansas is an area that most tourists drive to, rather than fly to. That sounds reasonable and is grounds for some hope of a good race meeting. The tourist officials also said their inquiries indicate that people are likely to take fewer exotic vacations this winter and are more likely to take more weekend holidays. This fits nicely with the concept of Arkansas as a drive-to destination and is a basis for a hopeful outlook."

Another encouraging element cited by Jackson is the recent action by the State Legislature, trimming the tax on parimutuel wagering in the state from 2 1/2 to 1 percent, with the difference earmarked for purses. This is one of two developments Jackson sees as enabling Oaklawn to attract better horses for the meeting, which begins late in January. The other news concerns the decision in neighboring Oklahoma not to have a spring race meeting at Remington Park. Some of the horses who would have been at Remington are now likely to head for Oaklawn.