01/01/2007 1:00AM

Top-shelf racing gets boost from slots

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Bill Denver/Equiphotos
John Ward's older handicap runner Strong Contender is among the stars expected to run at the Gulfstream meeting.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - In a few short years, the loveable old Gulfstream Park has been transformed into the glitzy new Gulfstream Park Racetrack and Casino, complete with Latin bands, Lipizzan stallions, professional boxing, a poker room, and slot machines - with the emphasis on slot machines.

But underneath all those bells and whistles still lies the best winter racing in the country, which this year could feature appearances by as many as five Breeders' Cup winners and the highest overnight purse structure in the 68-year history of the track.

Gulfstream opened its Las Vegas-style casino with 516 slot machines in early November and is slated to install approximately 700 more machines in partnership with the Florida Division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association long before the 88-day meet ends on April 22. With business booming right off the bat in the new casino, overnight purses have already been elevated 17.5 percent from last year, with additional purse hikes possible once the second slot room opens.

The higher purses are evident on Wednesday's opening-day program. The featured third race, a second-level allowance at nine furlongs for older horses, offers a purse of $48,000, including Florida Owners Awards. The same race a year ago was worth only $35,000.

The 2007 meeting will also feature many new faces in key positions. Bill Murphy, the general manager at Thistledown in Cleveland, like Gulfstream owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., will now do double duty as vice president of racing at Gulfstream, replacing Scott Savin. Longtime Kentucky steward Bernie Hettel has signed on as an association steward for the meet, while racecaller Larry Collmus has replaced Vic Stauffer as the new voice of Gulfstream.

Back for another year is racing secretary Dave Bailey, who will be able to draw from arguably the classiest crop of horses seen around south Florida in many a winter. Among the horses stabled in the area and expected to race during the 2007 meeting are Breeders' Cup champions Dreaming of Anna (Juvenile Fillies), Street Sense (Juvenile), Miesque's Approval (Mile), and Round Pond (Distaff). In addition, BC Classic winner and Horse of the Year favorite Invasor is expected to return for the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Feb. 3 despite being shipped backed to New York by trainer Kiaran McLaughlin along with 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil last week due to the recent outbreak of equine herpesvirus in the area.

Other big names on the scene this winter include Nobiz Like Shobiz, who is among the early favorites for the 2007 Kentucky Derby, and other 3-year-old prospects such as Circular Quay, Scat Daddy, Cotton Blossom, Boca Grande, Bel Air Beauty, Octave, and Appealing Zophie; young turf standouts Wait a While and Showing Up; Grade 1 winner Swap Fliparoo; and older handicap stars such as Premium Tap, Sweetnorthernsaint, and Strong Contender.

As usual, the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby on March 31 will be the centerpiece of a record $9.25 million stakes schedule that also includes the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Feb. 3 and the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park BC Turf on Feb. 24. Bailey has also restructured the 3-year-old series leading up to the Florida Derby, with the most notable changes being moving the 6 1/2-furlong Swale Stakes to Feb. 3 and cutting back the distance of the Holy Bull on the same day from 1 1/8 miles to one mile.

"What's so fantastic about this place is that on any given day, even a Wednesday during the middle of the meet, you might see the next champion racing here," said Murphy.

The 2006 meet underscores Murphy's enthusiasm. Not only did Barbaro win both the Holy Bull and Florida Derby en route to his masterful performance in the Kentucky Derby, but maiden winners at Gulfstream included Showing Up, Pine Island, and BC Classic runner-up and potential 3-year-old champion Bernardini.

The addition of slot machines won't be the only changes to the plant this winter. In compliance with the wishes of fans and horsemen alike, a new saddling enclosure has been constructed adjacent to the paddock to allow patrons a better view of the horses prior to entering he track. The winner's circle has also been enlarged, 70 new mutuel machines have been added, and stadium seating with a capacity for more than 750 people has been erected in the North Park section of the grandstand.

"I'm hoping to give the North Park area a Saratoga feel," said Murphy. "We're also planning many new promotions to get our fans more involved with the racing programs. Daily seminars, second chance draws with losing tickets, and a Road to the Florida Derby handicapping contest with a $20,000 grand prize are just a few of the ideas we have for the meet."