04/21/2005 11:00PM

Solid racing under tough conditions

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - A meet conducted in temporary tents, with a disastrous opening day and an infectious-disease scare might seem like one you would want to forget. But the quality of racing at the 2005 Gulfstream Park meet, which concludes Sunday, made it unforgettable instead.

Magna Enter-tainment Inc.'s decision to demolish the old grandstand and build a more modern, compact building left Gulfstream looking more like a construction site than a racetrack when the doors opened for the 2005 season on Jan. 3. But despite the inconveniences caused by conducting the entire meet under tents and other temporary structures, an opening day that began with the year's first race declared a no-contest due to a tractor malfunction, and a bout of strangles that temporarily quarantined a small segment of the local horse population midway through the winter, the 2005 meet exceeded the expectations of even the track's harshest critics.

"Obviously we got off to a rocky start," said Gulfstream's president and general manager, Scott Savin, "but I think once the horsemen and the general public got into the swing of things, everything went well, and we couldn't have been more pleased with the way the meet went.

"No matter how much planning you do heading into something like this, you're always going to be surprised by what might happen," Savin said. "But even after we got hammered on opening day, nobody got discouraged, and we were able to recover quickly, come back strong, and ultimately found a way to fight through strangles and a lot of other adversities along the way."

The highlight of the meet was unquestionably the quality of the racing here this season, especially in the 3-year-old division. Eleven of the top 21 graded money earners heading toward the 2005 Kentucky Derby competed at Gulfstream this winter, including High Fly, who captured the meet's two most important 3-year-old races, the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby. The handicap ranks for older horses were equally productive. Donn Handicap winner Saint Liam is regarded among the elite of the nation's handicap division, and Roses in May bounced back from his second-place finish in the Grade 1 Donn to capture the world's richest race, the $6 million Dubai World Cup. Saratoga County, winner of the Mr. Prospector, also went to Dubai and won the $2 million Golden Shaheen.

"The ontrack product was outstanding here this year, to say the least," said Savin. "Just look at the leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby. High Fly ran and won here. Noble Causeway won here. Bellamy Road won here. Bandini won here. Sun King won here. Closing Argument won here, and so did Flower Alley."

Survivalist, General John B, Wild Desert, and Andromeda's Hero, all of whom are considered possible starters in the Kentucky Derby, also competed at Gulfstream this winter.

"I think the success of all these horses speaks volumes for our 3-year-old program, which is really the core of our entire stakes program, and as an organization we're thrilled about that," said Savin. "We are also extremely pleased with the business we did on our big days, beginning with the Sunshine Millions - and the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby programs, which were just huge. Despite all the inconveniences, the combined all-sources handle for both those cards was substantially better in 2005 than it was the previous year."

While the 2005 meet ends Sunday, the hard work is only just beginning for Savin and the rest of the Gulfstream Park management team as they prepare to have the new facility up and running in 2006.

"Right now we're focused on finishing up the meet on a high note, but then we'll get right to work to get ready for next season," said Savin. "Construction crews will begin double shifting on Monday. As of now we're on schedule to open Jan. 4, and everybody here is looking forward to a record-breaking meet next year."