03/18/2002 1:00AM

Shorter week is welcomed


Gulfstream Park was dark on Monday, the first Monday that the track did not hold a live race since opening on Jan. 3. It will be that way for the five remaining weeks in the extended Gulfstream meet, with one fewer day of racing a week for south Florida racing fans, trainers, and owners, and one fewer working day for Gulfstream employees.

But if anyone is upset about lost betting, racing, or earning opportunities, the complaints haven't reached the ears of the horsemen.

"Thank God," said Kent Stirling, the executive director of the Florida Thoroughbred Horsemen's and Benevolent and Protective Association. "We're finally in the five-day race weeks. You just can't make six-day weeks work anymore. We've run way too many races."

The numbers appear to bear out Stirling's opinion. With a horse shortage straining race fields, and confidence in the product at Gulfstream at an anecdotal low, all-sources handle on the track's races is down 11 percent compared to the same period last year, or more than $1 million a day, to $9.49 million. Attendance is down 2 percent, to 10,074 a day.

Last year, Gulfstream ended its meet on March 16 to give way to Hialeah Park, its crosstown rival. This year, Hialeah Park is closed - along with its 600-stall stable area - and the Gulfstream meet will go on through April 24.

Although some horsemen have complained about the grinding schedule at Gulfstream so far, Stirling said better days should be ahead. At Hialeah Park, average purse distribution was usually $120,000 a day, but Gulfstream is expected to maintain its $200,000-a-day overnight purse structure.

"No matter how many complaints I get, I keep telling the guys, 'Remember, we would have been running for $118,000 a day at Hialeah,' " Stirling said. "We can't lose sight of that."

Still, it would take a wide-eyed optimist to term the Gulfstream meet so far a success. In addition to the declines in attendance and handle, the track has been targeted for stinging complaints by racing fans, horseplayers, and the local media. Most of the criticism has centered on short fields, uncompetitive racing, and Gulfstream's decision to focus much of its marketing on its sponsorship of rock concerts.

Gulfstream officials did not return phone calls on Monday. But Stirling defended the rock concerts - which have also been criticized by some trainers for creating traffic problems to and from the track and for turning attention away from the racing product - for introducing new people to racing.

"I've seen the figures, and the first year [in 1999], the per capita wagering figure for a concertgoer was $8," Stirling said. "That went up to $13 the next year, $22 the year after that, and if all things hold, it will be $25 this year. So they're slowly becoming fans, whether we want to recognize that or not."