Claiming Crown bolsters strong Gulfstream meet

Just when you thought you had a chance in December to take a breather from horse racing, a potentially great meet opens Saturday at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla.

Gulfstream opened in January in years past, but in a switch with Calder, the meet was moved up a month, with Calder inheriting the back-end month of April. It’s been a win-win trade that has strengthened the Florida circuit.

There will be a week from Dec. 19 to 23 when Gulfstream will dominate the simulcast market. Both New York and Southern California racing will take the same nine-day break, racing Dec. 16 and not resuming until Dec. 26.

Gulfstream figures to make hay during this period, green hay, despite all of the Christmas shopping going on.

The dates switch has helped in other areas too.

For example, Gulfstream will host the Claiming Crown for the first time Saturday. No disrespect to the prior Claiming Crown host tracks, but having the event in South Florida is like opening a hit musical in Manhattan instead of Hartford.

The Claiming Crown consists of seven stakes offering a combined $850,000 in purses. I’ll offer a possible live long shot in the Claiming Crown Jewel: Willy Elliott (12-1) from the barn of Rudy Rodriguez.

Horseplayers love the full fields that Gulfstream racing offers on a daily basis. This is especially true in turf racing, where a 170-foot-wide grass course allows for 14-horse fields, regardless of the temporary rail settings.

The jockey colony is always strong, with top riders from New York, Kentucky and Canada joining the South Florida regulars. Four of the top seven money-earning riders (Javier Castellano, John Velazquez, Joel Rosario, Jose Lezcano) will be at Gulfstream.

The Kentucky Derby trail always runs through Gulfstream, and with the new Derby point system in place, the Florida Derby (100 points to the winner) and Fountain of Youth (50 points) will yield multiple starters for the Kentucky Derby.

■ CHARLES TOWN CLASSIC – The Charles Town Classic purse has been raised to $1.5 million, with $1 million guaranteed to the winner. The race is April 20, in concert with the Donn Handicap on Feb. 2 and the Santa Anita Handicap on March 2. The Charles Town race will conflict with the New Orleans Handicap at the Fair Grounds on March 30. This is undoubtedly a great time to own a good handicap horse.

■ COAST CASINO QUALIFIER – Today will be the first of four Coast Casino live-money handicapping qualifiers. The others will be Dec. 14, Dec. 28 and Jan. 11. The top two finishers will earn a free berth to the 2013 Horseplayer World Series. Players can participate at the Gold Coast, Orleans, Sam’s Town or Suncoast.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.

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