Yes, the winter racing season is here — and the best winter race meet is ready to roll at Gulfstream Park, with the 2018-19 Gulfstream Champions meet opening on Saturday, Dec. 1 and continuing until March 31. As always, Gulfstream will feature the best trainers, jockeys, grass horses and stakes races in action at this time of year, making it a must-bet track for all serious horseplayers and handicappers for the next several months.
The Gulfstream Park winter meet began with the Claiming Crown on opening day, continues with the Sunshine Millions on Jan. 19 and includes several key three-year-old prep races leading up to the Florida Derby.
And, of course, the meet also features the $16 million Pegasus World Cup scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 26.
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 Gulfstream and Calder (Gulfstream Park West) throughout the year. Generally speaking, the shippers from places like Kentucky and New York have a class edge on the local horses, especially in allowance and optional claiming races, but that is not always the case anymore, with competitive horses at nearly all levels being sent out by several local trainers. This is especially true early in the Gulfstream meet throughout the month of December, when many of the snowbirds are coming off layoffs and are still shipping in and getting acclimated to the Gulfstream track and to Florida’s winter climate.
The middle part of the Gulfstream Park 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. Gulfstream’s season will encompass a total of nearly 100 stakes races, capped off by the $1 million Florida Derby on March 30.
The Gulfstream Park meet — or any other meet for that matter — will be a lot more enjoyable if you win races and cash tickets. Read on for handicapping tips and angles and winning trends at Gulfstream Park based on the track’s prevailing biases and running style preferences.
Gulfstream is not only the winter’s most looked-forward-to race meet, it features full fields and excessive wagering opportunities at what is generally regarded as a very difficult meet for handicappers. In other words, it’s difficult to cash tickets at this meet, but, when you do, you can expect to get paid — a lot — and that fact makes Gulfstream Park a must-play track from December through April.
Here is a look at some categories that a horseplayer could use to help narrow down the choices and find the kinds of good-priced winners you’ll need to help you win money and further enjoy the season’s best horseracing.
Gulfstream Park dirt races tend 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. Gulfstream one-turn dirt races favor outside paths, while Gulfstream two-turn races favor inside posts and paths.
It will pay dividends for any handicapper to know Gulfstream’s prevailing biases and to pay attention to trainer trends and certain other meet-specific tips that have proven to be profitable over the recent past, going all the way back to when Gulfstream Park’s main track was reconfigured to a 1 1/8-mile oval prior to the 2005 meet.
Here are a couple of main track Gulfstream handicapping tips that should come in handy for the entirety of the Gulfstream meet:
1) When handicapping races over the Gulfstream main track, always be acutely aware that Gulfstream’s one-turn one-mile races play much more like sprints than other route races, which are run around two turns. In other words, GP one-mile races play much closer to the track’s seven-furlong races than to GP’s 1 1/16-mile races.
2) In terms of favorable post positions, Gulfstream features strong preferences on the main track in both sprints and routes. Two-turn route races favor inside posts, while the one-turn races, especially one-mile races, give an advantage to outside horses. Some of the golden rules at Gulfstream Park are to stay away from outside posts in main-track, two-turn routes — anything outside post six — and to stay away from far inside posts in dirt miles. Don’t bet the rail horse at all on one-turn race at 6 1/2 furlongs or longer, because that post shows terrible win percentages and ROIs for the last decade.
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. More so than elsewhere, however, it seems to be most difficult to go wire-to-wire in Gulfstream turf routes.
In sprints, it is totally the opposite. Gulfstream runs five-furlong turf sprints and, in those races, you really need to have speed — or at least tactical speed — in order to have a decent chance to win.
At Gulfstream on the grass, unlike on the dirt, a horse’s chances of success are based more on running style than post draw. Far outside posts are pretty much as good as inside posts, therefore it is running style that turns out to be more of a factor regarding how well a horse will run on the Gulfstream lawn.
In terms of running styles on the Gulfstream turf, the following preferences should be noted:
1) Early speed is key to a horse having a solid chance to win Gulfstream’s five-furlong turf sprints.
2) Early speed horses in Gulfstream routes seem to win less often than at any other track. In Gulfstream turf routes, stalkers and closers have the edge.
One fairly unique thing that is consistent at Gulfstream and different from other places is that outside posts — including far outside posts — are OK at Gulfstream. Whether it is a turf sprint or a turf route, horses can win from far outside posts and a horse drawing post 12, for example, is not getting a death sentence at Gulfstream.
If you must bet a Gulfstream turf frontrunner, at least go for either a horse with a chance to be the lone speed in the race or do so on a day and in a race where the turf rails are moved out from the hedge a considerable distance (on the outer turf course). The further out the turf rails are, the better the chance for a frontrunner to win. The turf rails are always publicly announced every racing day and astute handicappers always should take note of the turf rails before considering a frontrunner’s chances on turf.
One very important key distinction horseplayers must make in their Gulfstream handicapping has to do with Gulfstream’s commonly run turf distance of 7 ½ furlongs. Because it is less than a mile, that distance is classified as a sprint in terms of the turf statistics provided by many outlets. However, all that classification serves to do is to mess up all of Gulfstream’s turf stats for turf sprints and routes.
Because these races are around two turns, the 7 ½-furlong turf races must be lumped into the route category, not the sprint category. The 7 ½-furlong races run like short routes, not like long sprints. They have absolutely nothing to do with Gulfstream’s true dirt sprints, which are all run at five furlongs.
In Gulfstream’s ever-increasing number of short turf sprints, it is running style and not post position that plays the greatest role in the results — and in the chances of success or failure for different horses in the races. Instead of focusing on post position in five-furlong turf sprints, you must instead focus on running style. The 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.
In terms of posts, the rail post is not great at five furlongs on the turf, but the other inside posts (2-4), as well as pretty much any post position in the gate, are OK. If you do bet a horse from the rail in these races, make sure the horse has early speed. Otherwise, the chances are dim for any turf sprinter from post 1 at Gulfstream.
Have a great meet at Gulfstream this season and enjoy being a racing fan this winter. 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 to help you win at the winter’s best race meet.
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.