HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Early is better.
That’s what Gulfstream Park officials are hoping when they launch the 2012-13 season on Saturday, Dec. 1, the earliest opening in track history.
If results from the 2011-12 meet are any indication, the early kickoff should again prove a huge success. Gulfstream pushed its traditional Jan. 3 opening back a month last year and was rewarded with a banner meeting that saw total ontrack handle eclipse $50 million for the first time since the new facility opened in 2005 and total all-sources handle gain nearly $80 million, or 13 percent, from the previous year.
Saturday’s opening-day program was designed to get the campaign off to a flying start, with Gulfstream Park playing host to the popular Claiming Crown series for the first time. As a result, the opening-day program will include seven stakes races, topped by the $200,000 Jewel at 1 1/8 miles on the main track and the $125,000 Emerald over the turf, which features a rematch between King David and King Kreesa, the one-two finishers earlier this fall in the Grade 1 Jamaica at Belmont.
The Claiming Crown is simply the warm-up for what lies ahead at Gulfstream this winter. After offering just two graded stakes in December, the Grade 3 Sugar Swirl and the Grade 3 Mr. Prospector, the meet really gets rolling New Year’s Day with the Gulfstream Park Derby, the first major 3-year-old test of a season that will again be highlighted by the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 30.
Gulfstream also will play host for the first time this winter to the Eclipse Awards program, which will begin shortly after the conclusion of the Florida Sunshine Millions program on Jan. 19.
“We’re ecstatic to play host to the Claiming Crown on our opening day,” Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo said. “Horses competing in the claiming ranks are many of the toughest in the world. They’re game and they build loyal followings within the Thoroughbred community. I think this is a great opportunity for Gulfstream to help showcase these horses. It’s also a great way to kick off what we believe will be a memorable winter meeting.”
As expected, the seven Claiming Crown races all drew large fields. The Jewel lured a dozen horses, including Private Tale, who finished fourth in the Grade 3 Bold Ruler Handicap in his last start, and the Grade 1 stakes winner Homeboykris.
The best race on the card, however, is the Emerald, which attracted a full field of 14 plus four also-eligibles. Besides King David and King Kressa, the field includes stakes-caliber types such as Nikki’s Sandcastle and Major Marvel.