01/03/2010 12:00AM

Season of change begins at Gulfstream

Barbara D. Livingston
Quality Road will start his 4-year-old campaign Sunday in the Grade 3 Hal's Hope Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The 2010 Gulfstream Park meeting opens Sunday and everywhere you look there will be something new. New faces, new wrinkles, a new mall, and before the meet ends, perhaps even a new owner.

But among all the changes, one thing remains constant. The racing program at Gulfstream will be second to none over the next several months while once again showcasing many of the nation's top 3-year-old prospects hoping to earn themselves a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

The high-class stakes schedule kicks off immediately, on opening day, with the $100,000 Hal's Hope Stakes. The Grade 3, one-mile Hal's Hope attracted a field of nine older handicap horses led by Quality Road, who returns to the scene of his finest hour, an impressive victory in the 2009 Florida Derby.

Two of the newest faces at Gulfstream this winter belong to Ken Dunn, recently appointed to the position of president and general manager of Gulfstream Park, and Dan Bork, who becomes the track's fourth racing secretary in as many years. They in turn provided much of the impetus for some new and significant adjustments to both the stakes program and turf course. Foremost among those changes was moving the date of the Grade 1 Florida Derby from March 27 to March 20, which places it six weeks in advance of the Kentucky Derby instead of five, as well as tweaking the distances of the track's two most significant Florida Derby preps, the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth.

The new mall, the Village at Gulfstream Park, located adjacent to the grandstand, is officially scheduled to open Feb. 11, with parking potentially becoming a major headache for shoppers and horseplayers alike on busy days during the second half of the meet.

The ownership issue may or may not be settled before the meet ends April 24. The track's current owner, Frank Stronach's Magna Entertainment Corp., could be forced to sell Gulfstream Park under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. A Feb. 25 auction date has been tentatively set for some of Magna's properties, including Gulfstream.

"This will be the first year since this entire project started that we'll really be able to get a sense of what kind of impact to expect having racing as the centerpiece of a multi-entertainment gaming and retail development," Dunn said. "We don't expect to convert the unlimited masses who come to the mall into racing fans, that would be unrealistic, but this certainly does give us the opportunity to expose a large segment of new people to our facility."

Dunn says one of his major goals right off the bat is to make Gulfstream Park's simulcast signal the most popular in the country this winter.

"We've already got one of the top two or three products out there, but I want us to be number one in simo-land," Dunn said. "And we've taken some steps in that direction, including making some significant changes to the stakes program as well as altering the methodology by which we market the product to our simulcast customers."

Dunn also is excited about the decision to split the vast turf course into two courses, an inner and an outer, much in the same manner as the New York tracks.

"By having two courses at our disposal on a daily basis instead of one, we will have the ability to card more turf faces this winter, which should serve a multitude of purposes such as increasing our average field sizes, increasing our handle, and satisfying the desires of our customers who love grass racing," Dunn said.

Dunn also said the bankruptcy issue should not have any effect on the 2010 meet.

"Although the situation is in the back of everybody's mind, it will have no impact on the meet itself other than the fact we cannot plan or initiate any big capital projects at this time," Dunn said.

The 3-year-old division is as strong as ever heading into the meet. The group includes such highly regarded Kentucky Derby prospects as Buddy's Saint, Jackson Bend, D' Funnybone, Homeboykris, Aikenite, and Discreetly Mine, with Noble's Promise scheduled to arrive shortly.

The jockey colony also is overflowing with talent. All of last year's top 10 leading riders are expected back again this winter and they'll be joined by the hot local apprentice Luis Saez. All local barn areas and training facilities are full again this winter.

Having Quality Road back for opening day will rekindle memories of the 2009 meet when the son of Elusive Quality rose to the top of the 3-year-old division following easy victories in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby while under the tutelage of trainer James Jerkens. A foot injury prevented Quality Road from running in the Kentucky Derby. He was subsequently transferred to trainer Todd Pletcher for the second half of his roller-coaster 3-year-old campaign, which ended with Quality Road becoming fractious while being loaded into the starting gate for the Breeders' Cup Classic and having to be scratched.

Quality Road will carry high weight of 122 pounds and go postward as the heavy favorite in the one-mile Hal's Hope.

"He couldn't be doing any better in the morning, including his sessions at the starting gate," Pletcher said. "He's stood at the gate several times a week with both the regular gate crew and Bob Duncan and has been perfect. He seems to be handling everything very well, and a one-turn mile is something he's done before. Hopefully, he'll run well on Sunday but not run the race of the year because it's a race we're looking to build on for the Donn."

To win the Hal's Hope, Quality Road will likely have to beat his uncoupled stablemate Harlem Rocker, who makes just his second start since being disqualified from an apparent victory in the 2008 Cigar Mile more than 13 months earlier. Harlem Rocker launched his comeback by finishing second going seven furlongs under allowance conditions Nov. 14 at Churchill Downs.