Gulfstream Park Winter Preview

GULFSTREAM PREVIEW - THE WINTER'S BEST RACING STARTS NOW!

By Noel Michaels- OTBLearningLabs.com

Winter racing in Florida is where it's at, and the best winter race meet anywhere is at Gulfstream Park, which will kick-off its annual live meet starting on Saturday, Dec. 1. The meet will feature the best trainers, jockeys, stakes horses and stakes races in action at this time of year, making Gulfstream a must-bet track for all serious horseplayers and handicappers for the next several months.

For the second straight year, the annual winter Gulfstream Park meet opens at the beginning of December, and will extend for four+ months until early April. The season will be five-day-a-week racing, Wednesdays thru Sundays, except for certain holidays, like New Year's Day. Post time daily will be 12:45, with post times coordinated with Aqueduct throughout the day resulting in races from the two tracks running every 15 minutes.

For the second year in a row, Gulfstream will again be carding main track route races at the 1 1/16-mile two-turn distance. This was an important change made at last year's meet after two-turn route racing had been conducted at a minimum of 1 1/8 miles for the previous six years since the main track was renovated to its current layout.

The Gulfstream meet customarily begins with horses shipping to Florida from all over the East and Midwest to join the cream of the local crop that has been competing at Calder during the rest of the year. Generally speaking, the shippers from places like Kentucky and New York often have a class edge on the local horses, but that is not always automatically the case anymore with competitive horses at nearly all levels being sent out by several local trainers, especially early in the meet (formerly in January, but now in December) when many of the snowbirds are coming off layoffs and are still shipping in and getting acclimated to Florida's climate.

The middle part of the Gulfstream Park meet is when the action really starts to happen. January ushers in the time when the out-of-town barns really come to life as the quality of racing elevates to its highest level of the year in South Florida. This is usually from January until the end of March.

Gulfstream's season will encompass a total of 90 racing days and will include 61 stakes races - 33 graded - worth more than $10.1 million. Total purses for the meet will be well in excess of $30 million. Just some of the key dates of Gulfstream's 2012-2013 meet will include:

  • December 1: The Claiming Crown will for the first time be contested at Gulfstream Park with seven stakes races worth a total of $850,000.

  • Jan. 1: The second annual running of the $100,000 Gulfstream Park Derby, the first derby in the country for 3-year-olds.

  • Jan. 19: The Florida Sunshine Millions, which was re-formatted last season, will be run in its entirety again this year at Gulfstream Park. The Florida Sunshine Millions will be made up of six stakes races worth $1.30 million topped by the $400,000 Florida Sunshine Millions Classic.

  • Jan. 26: The $400,000 Holy Bull (G3) attracts some of the most promising 3-year-olds, while the top 3-year-old fillies run in the $200,000 Forward Gal (G2).

  • Feb. 9: The afternoon includes four graded-stakes races, including two Grade I events: The $500,000 Donn Handicap (G1) for older horses on the dirt, and the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (G1) for older horses on the turf. These races serve as preps for the Dubai World Cup card, and could attract some of the country's top runners.

  • Feb. 23: The $400,000 Fountain of Youth (G2), the last major prep for the Florida Derby, will be one of three graded-stakes races for the day, including the $250,000 (G2) Davona Dale for 3-year-old fillies.

  • March 31: Florida Derby Day. The $1 million Florida Derby (G1) will be one of seven stakes races (six graded) worth over $2 million. Other races include the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2) for 3-year-old fillies, the $100,000 Skip Away (G3) for older horses on the dirt, the $150,000 Rampart (G3) for older fillies on the dirt, and the $150,000 Orchid (G3) and $100,000 Appleton, both contested on the turf.

GULFSTREAM JOCKEYS AND TRAINERS

With most of the best East and Midwest trainers and horses wintering in Florida, it's no surprise that the top jockeys will all be there, too. A strong case can be made that during the past decade, the Gulfstream Park jockey colony has become the best jockey colony in the country during the winter, and arguably the best anywhere at anytime of the year, along with Saratoga's summer meet.

The Gulfstream Park jock's room will be headed by defending champion Javier Castellano, who led all riders with 112 wins at last year's meet. Two-time meet riding champion Paco Lopez, who topped Gulfstream riders in 2010 and 2011, should get off to a blazing hot start and do a lot of his winning at the meet during the months of December and January. Gulfstream will also be the winter home of a who's who of top jockeys nationally including John Velazquez (76 wins in 2011-12), 2009 Gulfstream riding leader Jose Lezcano (51 wins in 2011-12), plus Joe Bravo (42 wins in 2011-12), Cornelio Velasquez, Rajiv Maragh (57 wins in 2011-12), and Hall of Famer Edgar Prado (36 wins in 2011-12), in addition to many more solid jockeys all vying to win their share of races including Joe Rocco (44 wins in 2011-12), Manoel Cruz, Luis Saez, and Elvis Trujillo (43 wins in 2011-12).Calvin Borel - an Oaklawn Park fixture - probably will even ride a December stint at Gulfstream prior to the opening of the Hot Springs meet in mid-January.

When it comes to the top riders, here are some things to watch for: The runaway Gulfstream meet-leading rider last season was Javier Castellano. Castellano not only ruled the roost in terms of wins, but also in terms of winning percentage with an impressive 26% winners at the meet against an extremely tough jockey colony in races with mostly big fields. John Velasquez won at a solid 22% win percentage at Gulfstream in 2011-12, thanks in large part to riding first call for leading trainer Todd Pletcher. However, Castellano gets more and more winners for Pletcher all the time, especially at Gulfstream, so you can no longer count on Velazquez being on the best Pletcher horses, and it is not a downgrade to see Castellano named instead.

Paco Lopez wins a lot of races, and at a high percentage, as the first-call rider for the owner/trainer combination of Frank Calabrese and Nick Canani.

After the top two or three riders in the jockey standings, there is a good battle going on for 3rd, 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-places between Rajiv Maragh, and Jose Lezcano. Lezcano is coming off a quietly very good year in 2012, while Maragh will attempt to rejuvenate his career after tailing off badly after the Gulfstream meet in 2011-12. Maragh switched agents twice since last seen at Gulfstream, so the jury is still out on whether he will re-join the top ranks of riders at Gulfstream this season. Maragh wins mostly with New York-based trainers and also rides for the high-percentage Peter Walder barn. Jose Lezcano pulled down a nice 18% win percentage at Gulfstream in 2011-12, including many wins with the increasingly dangerous Jason Servis stable.

Other jockeys to watch include Joe Rocco Jr., who surprised at last year's Gulfstream meet with 44 winners, seventh in the standings, thanks in large part to his partnership with the high percentage Nick Canani stable of owner Frank Calabrese.

When it comes to trainers at the Gulfstream meet, the story is all about perennial leading trainer Todd Pletcher, who comes off an absolutely dominant season at Gulfstream in 2011-12 - even for him - more than doubling the next-leading trainer with 71 victories and a giant 40% win percentage. Chad Brown parlayed a breakout 2011 season into a strong 2011-12 Gulfstream meet with 29 victories, including many on the grass. Brown clicked with 27% of his starters, good for second-place behind Pletcher at last year's meet. Brown should be expected to finish second again this season.

Dale Romans was next among leading trainers with 24 winners at the 2011-12 Gulfstream meet, but it is worth noting that his win percentage was not as good as the other leading trainers at 16%, due in large part to some tough luck and a lot of second and third-place finishes.

The aforementioned Nick Canani had another good meet with 24 winners and a 23% win percentage last year, but nevertheless, the "Canani factor" was reduced at Gulfstream as opposed to the prior couple years when he won in the lofty 40%-45% range. Also worth mentioning is Peter Walder, who has been up-and-down at Gulfstream in recent years but may be ready to enjoy one of those "up" times this season thanks to expected wins with a lot of turf sprinters and young horses. His win percentage finished last season at 31% after being up near 40% wins for much of the 2011-12 GP meet.

GULFSTREAM PARK'S PREVAILING BIASES

Any meet, no matter how good or bad it is, is always a lot better from a horseplayer's point of view when you are winning races and cashing tickets, and the best way to accomplish that task is to pay attention to trainer trends and certain other meet-specific handicapping tips that have proven themselves to be profitable over the recent past since Gulfstream Park's main track was reconfigured to a mile-and-an-eighth oval prior to the 2005 meet.

There are a variety of good tips to give handicappers so they can establish a winning edge at Gulfstream Park, including certain trends focused in the areas of running styles, post positions, and turf racing, which are all designed to give handicappers their best chance to win at Gulfstream from start to finish.

Here are some Gulfstream handicapping tips that should come in handy for the entirety of the Gulfstream meet through April 5.

When handicapping at Gulfstream, always be acutely aware that one-mile races on the main track are one-turn races. This makes a big difference, because the one-mile races at Gulfstream play much more like sprints than like other routes races at Gulfstream that are run around two turns. Two-turn races, understandably, favor inside posts, while the one-turn races, including one-mile races, give an advantage to outside horses.

Some of the prime golden rules at Gulfstream Park are to stay away from outside posts in main track two-turn routes, and to stay away from far inside posts in dirt miles. Don't bet the rail horse in any sprint at 6 1/2 furlongs or longer, and stack your bets against front-runners on the turf (unless the turf rails are out - the further the better). These axioms cannot be repeated often enough, because these elements, when added together with winning running styles and trainer trends, can provide you the framework of everything you'll need to win money at Gulfstream Park.

In two-turn routes run at 1 1/8 miles, once again this season, you probably will need an inside post to have an optimal chance to win one of Gulfstream's two-turn routes. The inside post position favoritism is present at the new 1 1/16-mile distance on the Gulfstream main track, but it is not as dramatic as at 1 1/8 miles.

RUNNING STYLE PREFERENCES

The prevailing running style preference in Gulfstream dirt races tends to favor horses with early speed, or at least tactical speed, at all distances. Stalkers and mid-pack horses sometimes run well, but deep closers are generally not good bets at Gulfstream, except on days when a temporary anti-speed bias develops to help-out closers.

Since deep closers generally don't do well on this main track, and inside posts and rail-skimming trips are usually not an advantage, the two prevailing track biases on Gulfstream Park's main track are, 1) Gulfstream's dirt track favors horses with speed and tactical speed, and; 2) Gulfstream one-turn dirt races favor outside paths, while Gulfstream two-turn races favor inside posts - except for, perhaps, the far inside rail post.

TURF RACING

Now let's move to the grass, where a large part of the action takes place each winter at Gulfstream. Like many turf courses, the Gulfstream turf usually favors horses with good turn-of-foot acceleration in the stretch. Much more-so than elsewhere, however, it is difficult to go wire-to-wire on the Gulfstream turf course, and Gulfstream's turf course is definitely not friendly to early speed horses of any kind. Through the last couple years, the Gulftsream grass course has became one of the most difficult courses in the country on which to win going wire-to-wire.

If you must bet a Gulfstream turf front-runner, try to make sure 1) The horse is the lone speed in the race, preferably from an inside post, 2) The horse has a solid class edge on the rest of the field, and 3) Look and see if the turf rails are moved out from the hedge. The further out the turf rails are, the more advantage there may be for front-runners. Turf rails are always publicly announced every race day.

The position of the turf rails on the Gulfstream grass course, which has been divided into inner and outer turf courses to help the condition of the course stay good throughout the long meet, is key for the chances of an early speed grass horse. Since they are always moving the turf rail around, always be aware of where the turf rail is before you consider a front-runner's chances on turf.

At Gulfstream on the grass, unlike on the dirt, a horse's chances of success are based more on running style than post draw. Running style has been a key determining factor how well a horse is expected to run on the Gulfstream lawn with pressers and stalkers having the best chances overall.

In Gulfstream's increasing number of short turf sprints, it is very much unlike turf sprints at other tracks where the inside posts are strong detriments to a horse's chances, however, very much like turf sprints at many other tracks, the rail post 1 itself is still a bad proposition. In GP turf sprints, the best posts have been posts 2-4, while the rail Post 1 is a dismal 9%.

Interestingly, unlike in Gulfstream's dirt route races, outside post positions generally have not been much of a detriment for horses in two-turn turf routes, although the inside posts 1-5 did perform well back at the 2011 Gulfstream meet.

SUMMARY

In summation, when in doubt, always lean toward the horses with speed or tactical speed who can make their moves on the outside. Use this rule in conjunction with certain tried-and-true post position rules like staying away outside posts in main track routes, staying away from far inside posts in dirt miles, not betting the rail horse in any sprint at 6 1/2 furlongs or longer, and stacking your bets against front-runners on the turf, and you'll have the beginnings of a winning recipe for success at Gulfstream Park.

Good luck at the new Gulfstream Park race meet, and enjoy top-class racing in Florida for the next four months beginning on December 1. I hope you enjoy a profitable meet.
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