01/04/2006 12:00AM

Unlike last year, a smooth opener

Bill Denver/ EQUI-PHOTOS
Opening day at Gulfstream Park's 2006 meet received mostly positive reviews despite the track's limited occupancy. The track will reopen Saturday.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Construction workers mingled with early arrivals, performing whatever last-minute chores were necessary to have Gulfstream Park's work-in-progress grandstand ready Wednesday for opening day of the 2006 meeting. And from all indications, it was a job well done.

Unlike the 2005 Gulfstream opener, which was conducted under tents and had two races canceled, Wednesday's eight-race card came off about as smoothly as could be expected under the circumstances.

"It's unbelievable how our staff pulled this off," Gulfstream president Scott Savin said after Wednesday's final race. "We had a few glitches - there was a small problem with the walk-around tellers that was fixed after the fourth race, and we had long lines at the concession stands and box office. We understand there were issues, but 99 percent of those are fixable and will be remedied by Saturday."

Gulfstream Park canceled Friday's scheduled card and will reopen on Saturday.

The main complaints centered around a few customer inconveniences, the lack of grandstand seating, and the $10 price of admission to the two air-conditioned rooms on the first floor. But most of the feedback from the opening-day crowd - estimated at 5,150 - was positive.

"Basically we're thrilled with what we heard today from our patrons, especially those inside the two rooms on the first floor," said Savin. "They all echoed the same sentiments, that it had the feel of a lavish, high-energy, Las Vegas-like sports book. And they seemed to enjoy the idea of being pampered. This is a new paradigm, the new presentation of racing that we think others will follow. Some of our patrons will have to adjust, but there are alternatives for anybody.

"Remember, only a portion of the building was available today."

Horsemen were impressed by the new facility.

"I'm pleasantly surprised," said trainer Keith Sirota. "Everything is really better than I expected with all the construction going on."

"Everyone looks like they're really enjoying themselves," said trainer Terri Pompay. "The new building is gorgeous. There were a few opening-day snags, but they can be worked out easily."

One minor complaint from trainers and jockeys centered around the banking of the ramp leading from the saddling enclosure to the walking ring.

"The first step seems a little steep, but it's nothing major," said jockey John Velazquez. "We'll see how everybody handles it today. We had a few things to change last year, talked about it with management, and they fixed it, so this shouldn't be a problem."

Ontrack, nothing changed. Two-time defending training champion Todd Pletcher picked up where he left off a year ago by greeting both his starters in the winner's circle, including Go Deputy in the featured eighth race.

"It's going to be great," said Pletcher. "As long as the racing surfaces are good and the saddling environment is okay, I'll be happy."

Ontrack handle on the eight-race card was $659,943, with an all-sources handle of $6,742,026. At nearby Calder Race Course, which opened for simulcasting under a recently signed agreement with Gulfstream Park, a crowd estimated at 1,100 wagered $152,149 on the Gulfstream races.

The only racing-related incident on opening day occurred in the second race, when jockey Joe Bravo was injured after his mount Bay Marvel broke down midway around the turn. Bravo was taken to Hollywood Memorial Hospital complaining of back pain and was scheduled to undergo an MRI to determine whether he had suffered a new injury or aggravated an old one. Bay Marvel was euthanized.