Sports

Gulfstream Park is going green for its 80th anniversary racing season. This is the plan

Horses sprint out of the starting gate at the start of the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, March 31, 2018.
Horses sprint out of the starting gate at the start of the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, March 31, 2018. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

The grass will indeed be greener at Gulfstream Park when the starting gate opens Saturday on the thoroughbred track’s 80th anniversary meet — and in more ways than one.

Not only have track officials given Gulfstream’s turf course a $1 million facelift, but are shelling out $7 million in enticement money to attract some of the world’s top grass horses for the inaugural Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational on Jan. 26.

Coupled with the $9 million Pegasus World Cup on the main track on the same day, Gulfstream will now lay claim to the richest dirt and turf races in North America.

It’s a far cry from the days when Gulfstream first opened in 1939.

Like most U.S. tracks back then, Gulfstream had no grass course. Horses raced on dirt, and dirt only. But since installing a turf course in 1959, the demand for grass racing has grown and Gulfstream has carded more races “on the weeds.”

“You could see it through the years,” said Gulfstream general manager Bill Badgett, a former trainer. “Turf races have become a lot more popular. It’s almost 50/50 now between turf and dirt.”

But grass is more difficult to maintain than dirt, especially with half-ton thoroughbreds that are going full throttle carving hoof-sized divots in the terrain. Compounding the issue for Gulfstream, which now holds a year-round monopoly on thoroughbred racing in Florida, is its non-stop, 10-month racing run.

Gulfstream is closed only for a two-month period in October and November when it conducts its races at the track formerly known as Calder.

Track officials used that window this year to replace its turf course.

“It was just time for it to be renovated,” Badgett said. “We tore the whole thing out and planted brand new sod in there. It’s a pristine turf course. And with the new Pegasus turf race coming on, it was perfect timing for us to get it done.”

Gulfstream lowered the purse on the Pegasus World Cup — a 1 1/8-mile dirt stakes — from $16 million to $9 million and used the difference in creating the $7 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational at 1 3/16 miles on the grass. The track hopes to attract turf stars that took part in the Breeders’ Cup in November, as well as turf-loving European horses.

There are no richer dirt or turf races in North America.

While the addition of the Pegasus has added some sparkle to the track’s 90-day “Championship Meet,” the $1 million Florida Derby on March 30 remains its signature race, a major steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby and other two Triple Crown events in May and June.

In all, Gulfstream has scheduled 105 stakes totaling a track-record $29 million in purses during a meet that runs through March 31.

The meet kicks off Saturday with the $1.1 million Claiming Crown. Other highlights include the Clasico Internacional del Caribe on Dec. 8 and the Harlan’s Holiday on Dec. 15, which 2018 Florida Derby winner Audible is expected to use as a prep for the Pegasus World Cup.

Audible is trained by Todd Pletcher, who has won the previous 15 training titles at Gulfstream. Pletcher-trained horses have won the Florida Derby five times -- a record.

“Gulfstream’s been a great meet for us for a number of years,” Pletcher said. “It seems to be a racetrack that suits our program but it also seems to suit our training style.”

Also returning will be jockey Luis Saez, who rode a Gulfstream-record 137 winners last winter and will be seeking his third straight riding title there.

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