01/01/2004 12:00AM

Start of something big

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Extra stall space at Palm Meadows should mean bigger fields this season at Gulfstream. Among the star horses expected to run are Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Cajun Beat (above) and Funny Cide, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

MIAMI - If opening day is any indication, the 2004 Gulfstream Park meeting should be something special.

Led by the return of Breeders' Cup Sprint champion in the six-furlong Mr. Prospector Handicap, Saturday's 11-race opening day program includes three Grade 3 stakes. There will also be a guaranteed minimum pool of $100,000 on a special pick three wager consisting of the Mr. Prospector, the Hal's Hope, and the Honey Fox handicaps. All three stakes carry a purse of $100,000.

Racing secretary Dave Bailey has adjusted his stakes program this season to group more events on weekends. He was also looking to get the meet off to a quick start, but admitted that he never expected to attract a Breeders' Cup winner opening day.

"I believe opening day is an indication of what to expect all winter, and I think this meet is going to be a lot of fun," said Bailey, who is starting his fourth season as the head man in the Gulfstream racing department. "We have a lot of new additions to our stable areas due in large part to the 600 extra stalls available at Palm Meadows this winter. Both the quantity and quality of our field sizes should improve compared to the past several years when we went into the meet knowing we had problems."

Bailey said he's also encouraged by the record 160 early-bird nominations to the Florida Derby, a list that comprises the top 3-year-olds in the country.

Nearly every top barn on the East Coast will be represented at Gulfstream this winter, including new additions Kiaran McLaughlin, Scott Lake, Richard Dutrow Jr., and Jimmy Jerkens. Frank Brothers and Wayne Catalano are back after brief absences, while Gulfstream mainstays such as Shug McGaughey, Nick Zito, Allen Jerkens, Bill Mott, Christophe Clement, Todd Pletcher, Mark Hennig, John Ward Jr., and Carl Nafzger are all on hand with full barns.

The 2004 meeting will be highlighted by the $1 million Florida Derby on March 13 and Magna Entertainment Corp.'s latest innovation, the Sunshine Millions.

The Sunshine Millions consists of eight stakes for Florida- and California-breds and will offer more than $3.5 million in purses. The Sunshine Millions will be held at both Gulfstream and Santa Anita Park on Jan. 24, and was considered a major success when unveiled in 2003. Other meet highlights include the Grade 1 Donn Handicap and Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap.

"This should be a great [Florida] Derby," said Bailey. "This is probably the best crop of 3-year-olds we've had training down here in a long time.

"The Sunshine Millions should only get better now that it's been accepted by horsemen on both coasts. And we've got both the defending Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide and Canadian champ Wando here to anchor our older handicap division."

Attracting Cajun Beat for the Mr. Prospector was an obvious bonus, but the question remains whether he can duplicate the type of performance that produced his 2 1/4-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Sprint - especially at what figures to be a short price.

"He came out of the Breeders' Cup in excellent shape," said Cajun Beat's trainer, Steve Margolis. "He's happy and training just as well going into this race as he did the Breeders' Cup."

Cajun Beat will have to be on top of his game to defeat Gygistar, who is the only other Grade 1 winner in the field.

Gygistar won all five of his starts two years ago at 3, including the Grade 1 Kings Bishop, but suffered through an unlucky 2003 campaign in which he captured just 1 of 4 starts. He missed much of last season due to a chip in his knee, and then had a pair of unlucky trips in the Forego and Vosburgh handicaps to close out the year.

Gygistar has trained exceptionally well since arriving in south Florida, and has won two of his three starts at Gulfstream.

Wake at Noon, the 2002 Canadian Horse of the Year, figures to set the pace in the Mr. Prospector and enters off a second-place finish in Calder's Kenny Noe Jr. Handicap.

Voodoo turns back to a sprint after finishing seventh in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile.