Updated on 09/16/2011 7:36AM

Whale of a meeting


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Gulfstream Park ushers in the era of deregulation in south Florida on Thursday when its 90-day meet opens. The meet, which ends April 24, is the longest in track history, running six weeks longer than the previous 10 meets, which ended on March 16.

As usual, the opening-day feature is the $100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes, the first of five stakes for 3-year-olds leading up to the $1 million Florida Derby on March 16.

The question is whether more will necessarily mean better for Gulfstream, which in recent years has struggled to maintain its stature as one of the two premier winter Thoroughbred meets in the country, along with its sister track Santa Anita Park.

The closing of the Hialeah barn area figures to impact both the quantity and quality of the fields, particularly in overnight races. So too will the absence of strings trained by D. Wayne Lukas, Neil Howard, and Todd Pletcher, who is based this winter at Fair Grounds for the first time.

Despite those key losses, neither racing secretary Dave Bailey or general manger Scott Savin envision any problem filling races or maintaining Gulfstream's high standard of racing throughout the longer meet.

Bailey said the slack will be taken up by horsemen stabled at other venues in the state.

"I don't believe filling entries will be a problem," said Bailey. "I also think we'll have plenty of interest from Ocala as well as the usual support from Calder and Payson Park. I really don't see what all the doomsayers are talking about."

Savin said Thursday's opening-day card drew 10 percent more entries from the Gulfstream Park barn area than last year's opener.

"I tried to communicate to our horsemen that stalls are at a premium and we need their participation, and if the opening card is any indication of the kind of commitment we'll be getting from the guys here and at Calder, we're going to have a really solid meet," said Savin.

The highlights of the meet are the $500,000 Donn Handicap on Feb. 9 and the March 16 Florida Derby, two of five Grade 1 races to be run at the meet.

The older handicap division is particularly strong, and is led by Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos* (click here for PP's), who won all three of his starts over this track a year ago, including the Florida Derby. Other notable older horses to run at the meet include Red Bullet, Macho Uno, Traditionally, Left Bank, Graeme Hall, Ubiquity, and Sir Bear.

Repent, runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and stablemate Harlan's Holiday head the group of newly turned 3-year-olds on the grounds, along with Saarland, Nokoma, and Silent Fred. The allure of the Gulfstream meet is watching the development of 3-year-olds who arrive unheralded but leave as major factors on the Kentucky Derby trail. One of those was Monarchos, who did not win a maiden race until the second week of last year's meet.

The six-furlong Spectacular Bid rarely impacts the more important 3-year-old stakes of the meet. But trainer Shug McGaughey is hoping he might have a Florida Derby contender in Maybry's Boy, who tops a field of eight in the Grade 3 Spectacular Bid.

Maybry's Boy finished a fast-closing second going six furlongs, the shortest distance he has run, in his 2-year-old finale.

"I think there's enough speed in this field for him to get there, depending upon how the track is playing," said McGaughey. "The key for us is that he finishes up well, because the plan is to run him next in the Hutcheson [at seven furlongs] and then think about stretching him out around two turns. Getting him to the Fountain of Youth and even the Florida Derby is a big possibility. At least I hope he'll prove to be that kind."

for Gulfstream Park entries.

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