01/01/2010 12:00AM

Sunshine State racing

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When Gulfstream Park opens Jan. 3 - joining the Tampa Bay Downs season already in progress - horseplayers will have two good Florida meets to play. This was not always the case.

Known for many years as Florida Downs and/or Sunshine Park, Tampa's Thoroughbred track used to be a happy hunting ground for such notable sportswriters as Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner, Shirley Povich, and Red Smith when they were in Florida to cover baseball's spring training. What they and others visiting the west coast of Florida looked for was a relaxing day where they could bet a few dollars on horses that few fans will ever remember.

This all changed in the 1980s when New York Yankees owner George Streinbrenner took over Tampa Bay Downs, beefing up the facility and the stakes schedule and subsequently selling it to Stella Thayer in 1986. First came a turf course; next came an extensive simulcast contract and a card club that has combined to boost purses significantly, especially over the last 10 years.

In the Grantland Rice days, Tampa Bay's purse structure barely exceeded $25,000 per day. In the early 1980s, when I covered the track for the St. Petersburg Times, it hovered near $45,000. Now, it regularly tops $150,000 including 24 stakes, most notably the $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby at 1 1/16 miles, which this year will be run on March 13. The race has become a popular Kentucky Derby prep, and Street Sense won it in 2007 en route to victory in Louisville.

For everyday horseplayers, the appeal of this track goes beyond its physical improvements and richer purses. Tampa Bay Downs is one of the few tracks in America where players see large, competitive fields on a near-daily basis. There are talented trainers who winter here from the North and Midwest, Calder-based trainers who happily take up residence, and Gulfstream-based regulars who ship in for the stakes and allowance races on dirt and turf.

Because of the intimate track design, most players can inspect the horses in the paddock without even leaving their seats in the grandstand.

Horses who train and race on Tampa's sand-based surface, which is deeper than most in the East, can gain extra conditioning from their efforts. That is why so many Tampa-based horses tend to improve when they ship north after the meet. That also is why absentees and first-time starters who have a series of workouts over the track deserve strong consideration when matched against horses with limited local experience and moderate form.

Although the inside rail path usually holds no advantage over outer lanes, there are days such as Dec. 27, when a positive rail bias does assert itself. On the turf course, the old handicapping bromide, class on the grass is a very strong winning angle, even for horses that switch to the turf for the first time. Usually, however, these newcomers to the turf have run against better on dirt or synthetic and have strong turf breeding.

During the first weeks of this meet, it has been profitable to play Kathleen O'Connell shippers from Calder, Anthony Reinstedler shippers from Kentucky, and Anthony Pecoraro-trained horses in almost any race on the card.

Daniel Centeno, Rosemary Homeister Jr., and James Lopez have resumed their usual place among the leading jockeys, while Junior Alvarado is expected to make his presence felt after he recovers from shoulder surgery. Luis Gonzalez, a low-

profile rider, has a good feel for this grass course and could be the key to some longshot turf winners.

In the meantime, Gulfstream Park, which took over the prime winter racing dates in south Florida 20 years ago when owned by the Donn family, has gone through dramatic changes in recent years.

First, Magna Entertainment's principal owner Frank Stronach spent more than $150 million in a lavish reconstruction of the Gulfstream grandstand four years ago that included fewer than 1,500 grandstand seats and a slot room that has not produced the expected profits.

For the 2010 season, Magna has hired a new general manager, Kenny Dunn. Other recent managerial changes may impact the way the game is played at Gulfstream, pending the disposition of Magna tracks being sold to pay the company's lingering debt. In the meantime, Gulfstream's stakes schedule has gone through a few changes.

The $750,000 Florida Derby, which the Donn family annually scheduled for mid-March - seven weeks before the Kentucky Derby - was moved by Magna in 2005 to five weeks out. Now, Magna is moving this nine-furlong, Grade 1 race to March 20, six weeks out. This may or may not help Gulfstream, but it will give Florida Derby trainers the option of running their horses back in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 10 or other major prep stakes in mid-April. The repositioning of the Florida Derby also has altered the dates for some of the usual prep stakes leading up to it.

The Grade 3 Holy Bull, will be run for the fourth successive year at one mile around one turn on Jan. 23; the Grade 2, $250,000 Fountain of Youth, will be run at the same nine-furlong distance as the Florida Derby on Feb. 20. While the stretch-out from one mile to a two-turn race in this progression makes sense, some trainers have suggested that the progression would work better if the Fountain of Youth was scaled back to the 1 1/16-mile distance it had been run for over 50 years through 2004.

On the same Feb. 20 card, late-starting 3-year-olds can begin their campaigns in the Grade 2, $150,000 Hutcheson at seven furlongs.

During the 79-day session through April 24 there will be 47 stakes, including three Grade 1's and 27 other graded events. After the one-mile, Grade 3 Hal's Hope is run on opening-day Sunday, there will be five sprint stakes the following Saturday, Jan. 9, including a trio of Grade 3's.

The Sunshine Millions - a mid-winter stakes extravaganza for Florida- and Cal-breds split between Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream - will be back Jan. 30 with a reduced schedule. While Santa Anita hosts the $500,000 Sunshine Million Classic (down from $1 million) and two other events; Gulfstream will host the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Turf at nine furlongs on grass, the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff at nine furlongs on dirt, and the $200,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint at six furlongs.

Todd Pletcher, the leading trainer at Gulfstream for five consecutive seasons, is here with a loaded barn of well-rested horses, including the talented but difficult-to-handle Quality Road, who won the 2009 Florida Derby when trained by Jimmy Jerkens. Players should expect Pletcher to hit the ground running, and Quality Road is being pointed for the Grade 1, $500,000 Donn Handicap on Jan. 23.

Pletcher will face stiff competition this season from strings trained by Ken McPeek, Wesley Ward, Bill Mott, Nick Zito, Peter Walder, Rick Dutrow, Christophe Clement, Jimmy and Allen Jerkens, and the locally based Marty Wolfson.

Zito, in fact, annually wins his share of maiden and allowance races with lightly raced 3-year-olds. Clement, Mott, and Wolfson can be expected to score with several turf horses. Ward is a master with first-time starters and lightly raced maidens coming back from an absence of a few months. McPeek and Dutrow are very versatile, while Jimmy and his Hall of Fame father Allen Jerkens also have few holes in their respective training methods.

Last year's leading jockey Jose Lezcano is back, along with other familiar top 10 riders Elvis Trujillo, Kent Desormeaux, John Velazquez, Julien Leparoux, Alan Garcia, and Edgar Prado. Apprentice Luis Saez, who moved up the Calder standings rapidly during the latter months of 2009, also will be worth watching at Gulfstream. While all of these riders are quite competent, and Desormeaux and Prado are Hall of Famers, no jockey in America has more skills and more upside than the French-born Leparoux, who was the best rider I saw in 2009.