11/04/2004 1:00AM

Stronach: Rebuilding on schedule

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Gulfstream Park
The Gulfstream turf course is thriving and the cushion for the main track has been laid, but there's still plenty to be done.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - For the past several months, the main question regarding the upcoming 2005 Gulfstream Park season was whether the newly constructed turf course would be ready for the opening of the meet.

But as the clock ticks down, Magna Entertainment Corporation's main concern - with opening day less than eight weeks away on Jan. 3. - is whether the front side will be ready and operational for the meet, not the one-mile grass course.

MEC chairman Frank Stronach, whose Lone Star Park drew much praise for hosting this year's Breeders' Cup, said there was little cause for concern regarding the opening or any other facet of the meet.

"We are right on schedule," said Stronach, who visited the track last week. "Everything will be well organized right off the bat. I believe people coming to Gulfstream this winter know what to expect and will really enjoy themselves at what is going to be a unique, fairgrounds type of meet."

The state-of-the-art turf course was seeded in mid-July and has grown in so well it's already been mowed several times. The cushion for the 1 1/8-mile main track was laid this week and will be available for training on Wednesday, said Gulfstream Park president and general manager Scott Savin.

"Both racing surfaces are actually ahead of schedule and will be no problem," Savin said. "I can understand anybody looking at the rest of the grounds thinking it's hard to believe there will be a race meet here in less than two months. But work is proceeding on a seven-day-a-week basis, we're extremely well staffed to get the job done, and we feel we're in very good shape when it comes to being ready for opening day."

The barn area will open on Monday, Savin said. Among the main projects this winter was the construction of eight new barns to replace ones torn down to accommodate the larger turf and main tracks.

"Mr. Stronach told us this becomes a racetrack on Nov. 8 when the barn area opens, and that having the barn area ready on time was to be our number one priority at the moment," Savin said.

Once the barn area is ready and the main track opens for training, focus will shift to the front side, Savin said. With the grandstand having been torn down in the spring, the 2005 meet will be held under temporary structures, including large tents similar to the ones used at Lone Star for the Breeders' Cup.

"The tents are already on site and will be erected from Nov. 15 through the 20th," said Savin. "From then until opening day we'll concentrate on preparing the infrastructure, including the landscaping, power, restrooms, etc."

From a racing standpoint, the 2005 meet could be one of the best ever. Racing secretary Dave Bailey is making final his stall lists and has some noteworthy additions to what was already a star-studded group of trainers here a year ago.

"We didn't lose much in quantity, maybe 250 stalls all together, but quality-wise we're better than ever," Bailey said. "In addition to our regulars, I've allotted 34 stalls at Palm Meadows to Bobby Frankel. Greg Foley and Darrin Miller are coming from Kentucky; Henry Cochran, Dave Kassen, and Ronny Werner from the Fair Grounds; as well as Mike Hushion, Frank Labocetta, and Dominick Schettino from New York."

Among the horses expected to stable in south Florida this winter are Breeders' Cup winners Ghostzapper, Ashado, and Better Talk Now. Classic runner-up Roses in May and Funny Cide will also be in town and could be among the early favorites for the Grade 1 Donn Handicap. Bailey also said that trainer Frank Brothers told him that Madcap Escapade, one of the stars of the 2004 meet, should be ready to launch her comeback at Gulfstream this meet.

As for the turf course, Bailey said: "The new grass course will give us another new dimension. I'll use it judiciously to start out, two races a day in January, but then should be able to card three to four races per day throughout the remainder of the meet."