In the world of thoroughbred racing, Gulfstream Park ranks in the Ivy League of tracks.
It turns away horses looking to come to South Florida for the winter like Harvard rejects student applications. And it accepts only the very best.
That’s why, as one Gulfstream official put it, a “buzz” surrounds Saturday’s opening of the track’s “Championship Meet,” a four-month racing pocket that falls in the sweet spot of the racing calendar — locally and nationally.
“I equate it to Saratoga,” track general manager P.J. Campo said of Gulfstream’s elite status.
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Although historic Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York is the place to be for racing enthusiasts in the summer, the spotlight swings to Gulfstream during the winter, when many of the nation’s premier horses, jockeys and trainers arrive to take the stage.
This year, Campo said the track received more than 4,000 applications for horses vying for the 3,100 stalls under track jurisdiction: 430 at Calder, 1,200 at the Palm Meadows training facility in Boynton Beach and 1,500 at Gulfstream itself.
There’s not an empty stall to be found south of Palm Beach County.
As a result, Gulfstream has managed to buck the national trend of shrinking fields for its races. According to The Jockey Club, the average field at U.S. tracks in 2014 was 7.69 horses per race, the lowest figure since the organization began keeping track in 1950.
“At one point last year, we were over 10 [horses per race],” Campo said. “I think we finished around nine. To me, anything from 8 1/2 and above, you’re doing really well. I know we’re usually on the upper side of the national average.”
And bettors are drawn to big fields and quality horses. Gulfstream has both.
“You’re giving good [purse] money away,” Camps said. “There are big fields, and customers love to bet on them.”
Saturday’s kickoff card had 143 horses entered for 11 races, nine of which are “Claiming Crown” events.
As usual, much of the attention at Gulfstream will focus on 3-year-olds taking aim at the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown races in the spring.
Gulfstream’s highlight race for 3-year-olds is the Florida Derby on April 2, one day before the meet ends. Other top stakes include the Donn Handicap on Feb. 6, the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 27 and the Gulfstream Park Handicap on March 5.
Although Gulfstream failed to produce a top 3-year-old contender in 2015 for the spring classics, what with outsider American Pharoah becoming the first horse to sweep the Triple Crown winner since 1978, it doesn’t get left out often.
“I think last year was an anomaly,” Camps said. “You had American Pharoah, and you had everybody else.”