By Noel Michaels
Yes, the winter racing season is upon us, and the best winter race meet is ready to roll at Gulfstream Park, with the 2020-21 Champions meet opening Wednesday (Dec. 2).
The Gulfstream season, which continues until March 28, features the best trainers, jockeys, grass horses and stakes races at this time of year, making it a must-bet track for all serious horseplayers and handicappers.
The meet contains several key 3-year-old prep races leading to the Florida Derby (G1) on March 27. The meet also features the scaled-down but still rich $3 million Pegasus World Cup (G1) on a card loaded with stakes on Jan. 23.
Gulfstream 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 here and at Calder (“GP West”) during the rest of the year. Generally speaking, the shippers from places like Kentucky and New York often have a class edge versus the locals, especially in allowances and optional claiming races. However, that is not always automatically the case anymore with competitive horses at nearly all levels being sent out by South Florida local trainers.
The December portion of the meet is akin to the old Tropical at Calder meet, which used to occupy the same time frame. Throughout the month and into early January, however, is when the big guns from the top national stables begin arriving in force for their winter seasons.
This means the Chad Browns, Todd Pletchers, etc., start filling the entries and dominating the tote board. This is a good opportunity for bargain-hunter handicappers, however, as many of these northern invaders show up in Florida needing a race and tend to do their best running once they have had a local race under their belts first. Well-bet invading December favorites have been known to go down in flames at low prices.
The middle part of the meet is when the premier action really heats up. January ushers in the time when the out-of-town barns come to life as the quality of racing elevates to its highest level of the year in South Florida. The Gulfstream racing in January, February, and March is the best there is during the winter months. The Gulfstream Champions meet will encompass a total of over 100 stakes races.
Read-on for handicapping tips and angles, and winning trends at Gulfstream Park based on the track’s prevailing biases and running style preferences over the last several years.
Pay attention to early speed horses
The prevailing running style preference in Gulfstream dirt races tends to favor horses with early speed, or at least tactical speed, at all distances. Deep closers generally don’t do well on this main track, and inside posts and rail-skimming trips are usually not an advantage in one-turn races. Gulfstream dirt sprints and miles tend to favor outside paths, while Gulfstream two-turn races favor inside posts and paths. Gulfstream’s one-turn one-mile races play much more like sprints than like other route races which are run around two turns (i.e. GP mile races play much closer to the track’s 7-furlong races than to GP’s 1 1/16-mile races). So when handicapping at one-mile, give an edge to milers, or horses stretching from 7 furlongs as opposed to horses cutting back from 1 1/16 miles.
Rail do’s and don’ts
In terms of favorable post positions, Gulfstream features differing preferences on the main track in both sprints and routes. Some of the prime golden rules at Gulfstream Park are to stay away from outside posts in main track two-turn routes – anything outside post 6 – and to stay away from far inside posts in dirt miles. Don’t bet the rail horse in any one-turn race at 6 1/2 furlongs or longer because that post shows sub-par win percentages and ROIs for the last decade.
A look at the turf trends
Now let’s move to the grass, where a large part of the action takes place. Unlike on the dirt, a horse’s chances of success on the Gulfstream turf are based more on running style than post draw. More-so than any other racetrack, it seems to be most difficult to go wire-to-wire at Gulfstream in turf routes (including 7 ½-furlong races, which are statistically often lumped in with turf sprints, but play like routes, not sprints). The only time it’s advisable to bet speed horses in Gulfstream turf routes is when the turf rails are placed significantly out from the rail on the outside oval. The track announces the turf rail positions every day, so do yourself a favor and pay attention.
Start quick in turf sprints
In turf sprints, speed plays totally the opposite. The 5-furlong Gulfstream turf sprints are dominated by speed horses, or at least horses that can stay within a length or two of the early lead. It is extremely difficult for horses to have any success in these turf dashes from far off the pace from the back half of the field. Even in turf sprints that are loaded with speed horses, you are better off betting “the speed of the speed” than you are looking for a closer. Generally, the off-the-pace types tend to fall short. In terms of posts, the rail is not great at 5 furlongs on the turf, but the other inside posts 2-4, as well as pretty much any post position in the gate, are all OK.
Have a great Gulfstream winter season. Put Gulfstream Park at or near the top of your wagering menu from now until the spring, and you are bound to do well by following these simple tips and trends. Best of luck, and enjoy!