The Gulfstream Park 2023-24 Championship Meet is ready to begin on Friday, Dec. 1. The season will continue until March 31 and will feature many of the best trainers and jockeys, grass horses, and leading Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve prospects around, making it a must-bet track for all serious horseplayers and handicappers for the next several months.
Big days will be a big part of the Gulfstream championship meet as you would expect, and the first of the headline days of the season will be Pegasus World Cup Day on Jan. 27 which will encompass seven graded stakes races topped by the $3 million, Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes and the $1 million, Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational Stakes. The meet will host important Kentucky Derby prep races such as the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 3 and the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 2, all leading up to closing weekend’s $1 million, Grade 1 Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm at Xalapa, which tops a day of 10 stakes races including five graded stakes on Saturday, March 30.
Aside from those big days, horseplayers also will be anxiously looking forward to the return of grass racing to Gulfstream Park after the track gave its turf course a refreshening the past few months in order to have it in tip-top shape for the championship meet. Gulfstream will resume its status of being the only three-surface racetrack in America with winter racing carded on the dirt main track, the turf course, and a Tapeta all-weather track.
The Gulfstream meet customarily begins with horses shipping to Florida from all over the East and Midwest to join the cream of the south Florida crop. Generally speaking, the shippers from places like Kentucky and New York often have a class edge versus the local horses, especially in allowance/optional claiming races and on the grass, but times have changed in south Florida racing and the local trainers, jockeys, and horses seem to win more races at the meet than ever before, especially in claiming races and on the Tapeta surface.
Late in December and into early January is when the big guns from the top national stables begin arriving in earnest for their winter seasons at Gulfstream. Before that happens, however, the first portion of the meet is a good opportunity for handicappers to look for bargains on the tote board as many of the northern invaders arrive in Florida needing a race off a layoff. Well-bet invading December favorites have been known to go down in flames at low prices when facing fields of local runners in mid-season form.
Gulfstream’s Top Jockeys
A premier jockey colony will be based at Gulfstream all season. The leading jockey at last year’s Championship meet was Irad Ortiz Jr., who racked up 128 wins and won the title by a margin of more than 50 over second leading rider Luis Saez, who had 71 wins. Gulfstream’s leading rider the previous Championship meet was Saez, who ran away with the title in 2022 with 122 wins.
Irad Ortiz and Saez will be back to presumably battle it out mano a mano for this season’s Gulfstream riding title. They will face-off against a star-studded jock’s room that also will include 2023 Belmont Park leading rider Jose Ortiz, Tyler Gaffalione, the leading rider at several Kentucky meets in 2023, Javier Castellano, the winner of the 2023 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, Monmouth Park leading rider and perennial Gulfstream winter powerhouse Paco Lopez, and several Gulfstream journeymen jockeys who will win a bunch of races at the meet including Edgard Zayas, Leonel Reyes, and Miguel Vasquez, just to name a few. John Velazquez will ride this season at Gulfstream, as will Joe Bravo.
Top Gulfstream Trainers
The 2022-23 Gulfstream Park championship meet leading trainer was Saffie Joseph Jr., who led all trainers in terms of wins with 47 winners on the strength of a meet-high 238 starters (20%). Todd Pletcher was clearly next best with 41 wins and had an even better 22% win percentage. Expect more of the same on the top tier.
The second rung of Gulfstream winter trainers in terms of wins is likely to be fairly extensive and led by some of the top names in the game such as Mike Maker (22 wins, 22% at this meet last year), Chad Brown (18 wins, 25%), Bill Mott (17 wins, 18%), Christophe Clement (17 wins, 29%), as well as local stalwarts like Jose D’Angelo (21 wins, 15%), and Antonio Sano (18 wins, 14%). Some other trainers won for very good win percentages with a fair amount of starters at the meet like Jorge Delgado (10-for-40, 25%), Jimmy Toner (8-for-27, 30%), and Jonathan Thomas (6-for-25, 24%).
On the flip side, some other trainers you would expect to excel had disappointing Championship meets last year. This group includes Mark Casse (17 winners but only 10% wins), Brendan Walsh (9% wins), Shug McGaughey (7%), and Ian Wilkes (8%).
Gulfstream Dirt Sprint Stats
The prevailing running style preference in Gulfstream dirt races favors horses with early speed, or at least tactical speed, at all distances. Deep closers generally don’t do well on this main track, especially in dirt sprints and miles (which are held around one turn).
In Gulfstream dirt sprints at the 2022-23 championship meet, horses on or close to the pace –defined for the purposes of this article as racing on the lead or within 1 ½ lengths of the lead at the first call – won 105 of the 157 dirt sprints accounting for 67% of all wins. Stalkers racing between 1 ½ and four lengths off the lead won 44 sprints for 28%, and closers more than four lengths off the lead were putrid in sprints with eight wins the entire meet for 5%.
When looking at the 105 front-running winners, the best posts last season were inside posts 1-3. Inside speed accounted for winners in 55 of the 157 dirt sprints. Inside posts also benefitted stalkers and closers as opposed to outside posts 7 and out. The vast majority of Gulfstream dirt sprints are run at either six furlongs or seven furlongs. Horses racing on or close to the pace won 70% of Gulfstream’s 60 seven-furlong races and 65% of Gulfstream’s 71 races at six furlongs at last season’s championship meet.
Dirt Mile and Route Preferences
As noted above, Gulfstream dirt mile races are run around one turn and are more like sprints than routes, but while the front-end advantage still exists, it is not as strong of a bias as in sprints. When handicapping mile races, give an edge to proven milers or horses stretching out from sprints as opposed to horses cutting back from 1 1/16 or 1 1/8 miles.
Speed did well in 50 dirt miles run at the last championship winter meet at Gulfstream, with 28 races won by horses on or close to the pace for 56%. Just like in sprints, closers performed poorly with only eight wins for 16%. Pace pressers and stalkers tend to get more wins at a mile than they do in sprints. As for post positions, horses breaking from posts 1-6 do well. There’s a drop-off in effectiveness starting from post 7.
Gulfstream dirt routes are mostly run at the distances of 1 1/6 miles and 1 1/8 miles. At the last championship winter meet at Gulfstream, post positions were very fair in 14 races run at 1 1/16 miles, but notably every one of the winners raced no more than four lengths off the lead at the first call while closers struck out. The biggest long-term stat for handicapping 1 1/8-mile dirt routes at Gulfstream favors inside posts and inside running paths. Anything outside post 5 generally is a bad draw.
Gulfstream Park Turf Trends
Now let’s move to the grass, where a large part of the action takes place each winter at Gulfstream Park. The long-term stats for Gulfstream turf routes show very little advantage or disadvantage to either inside or outside posts, and Gulfstream is known as a turf course where it is difficult to win going wire-to-wire. The turf routes run at the 2022-23 Gulfstream championship meet were exceptionally fair both in terms of post position and running style with all posts and running styles winning at similar percentages.
Gulfstream runs a lot of 7 ½-furlong turf races, which are around two turns and play like routes, not sprints. The odd distance with a short run to the first turn is actually extremely popular with 44 races run at last year’s meet. The 7 ½-furlong results were counterintuitive. Closers did better at this distance than in other turf routes, winning 41% of the races. Inside posts would seem to be an advantage at 7 ½, but while they do offer a slight statistical edge, it is only the speed horses that seem to benefit from those inside draws.
In Gulfstream turf sprints run at five furlongs, speed is king and the turf dashes are often dominated by horses on or close to the early lead. In 46 turf sprints run at last year’s Championship meet, 26 led or raced within 1 ½ lengths of the lead. At most meets that number is actually much higher. It is difficult for horses from the back half of the field to make a dent in five-furlong turf sprints. Only four winners came from more than four lengths behind (9%). In terms of turf sprint posts, inside is better than outside and win percentages tend to decline the further out you go.
Gulfstream Tapeta Tips
The Gulfstream Tapeta all-weather surface has had a couple years to break in and seems to play fair much like other Tapeta tracks around the country, especially in routes. Speed is the preferred running style in Tapeta sprints. From a 573-race sample of Gulfstream Tapeta sprints, front-runners won 55% of the races while closers won just 11%. Post positions in those races appear to be mostly inconsequential. In Tapeta route races from a sample of 728 races since Gulfstream installed the surface, the track has been remarkably fair in terms of running styles and post positions. The narrow advantage goes to pace pressers and stalkers from 1 ½ lengths to four lengths off the early pace, which have won 301 of the 728 races for 41%. The best time to bet speed on Tapeta is in wet conditions, but wet Tapeta is not notated in the charts or past performances.
We wish you a great Gulfstream Championship winter meet. Best of luck and enjoy the best racing of the season at Gulfstream Park!