12/31/2002 12:00AM

Signs point to quality surge


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey was preparing to work another horse on a warm and busy Tuesday morning at Gulfstream Park when he was asked if he were ready for the 2003 meet to begin.

"Why not?" he asked with a grin.

Why not, indeed. There is an unmistakable optimism at Gulfstream, where on Friday an almost four-month meeting will begin. A shortened racing schedule and a deeper supply of horses should help erase the unpleasant memory of last year, when short fields and cheap racing led to widespread complaints. Five-day race weeks in January and April, along with the recent opening of the Palm Meadows training center are prime reasons that there is far more enthusiasm for the coming meet than there has been in recent seasons.

Racing secretary Dave Bailey said the 600 or so horses in training at Palm Meadows, which is located some 40 miles north of Gulfstream in Boynton Beach, not only should provide additional depth to the meet, "but the quality of horses should be way up from last year."

While such major fixtures as the Feb. 22 Donn Handicap and March 15 Florida Derby again will be meet highlights, there is a new event that will dominate the opening weeks: the Sunshine Millions, a $3.6 million blockbuster that will be conducted simultaneously at Gulfstream and Santa Anita Park on Jan. 25.

Opening weekend at Gulfstream will be a busy one, with five stakes scheduled for the first three programs.

The opening-day feature is the $100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes, a six-furlong race that is shaping up with an especially tough field of 3-year-olds, with the top contenders being Super Fuse, Boston Bull, Silver Squire, Crafty Guy, and Coach Jimi Lee.

Two stakes are scheduled for each of the weekend programs, with the Grade 2 Appleton Handicap on Saturday being the most notable. Balto Star, the speedy gelding trained by Todd Pletcher, is the 118-pound highweight and likely favorite for the $150,000 Appleton, which goes at a mile on grass. At least 10 are expected.

The Saturday co-feature is the $100,000 Mr. Prospector Handicap, which figures to get about six or seven older sprinters. The Sunday features are the $100,000 Honey Fox Handicap and $65,000 Dame Mysterieuse Handicap.

The first two-turn stakes for 3-year-olds is the Holy Bull Jan. 18.

- With the opening of Gulfstream comes the closing of the Tropical-at-Calder meet. The $40,000 Just a Little Kiss, an overnight handicap at five furlongs on turf, has been carded as the Thursday feature at Calder, where racing has been conducted on a continuous basis since last April.