Gulfstream Park: Lopez gunning for a third straight riding title

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Ask any racing fan which jockey has won the last two riding titles at Gulfstream Park and it’s a good bet few will come up with the correct answer, Paco Lopez.

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Competing against the toughest jockey colony in the country that includes Hall of Famer Edgar Prado, future Hall of Famer John Velazquez, and such nationally renown riders as Javier Castellano, Julien Leparoux, Kent Desormeaux, and Alex Solis among others, Lopez has topped the standings here each of the last two seasons. He’ll open his bid to become only the third jockey in track history to win three straight Gulfstream riding championships – a feat previously accomplished by only Jeffrey Fell (1977-79) and Jorge Chavez (1999-2001) – when the 2012 session opens Saturday.

Lopez won 70 races to capture his first local crown in 2009 and bettered that mark a year ago, riding 83 winners during the 2010 meet despite being sidelined for one month after suffering a harline fracture of his elbow when involved in the same spill that left jockey Eibar Coa temporarily paralyzed in February. Overall, Lopez has captured six riding titles since coming to the United States from his native Mexico and beginning his career at Calder during the summer of 2007.

“Winning titles are important from a publicity standpoint, but what makes me happiest is just to be riding races,” said Lopez who is named on eight horses on opening day, including Blings Express in the Spectacular Bid Stakes. “And it doesn’t matter to me what kind of race I’m in. I ride my mounts just as hard whether I’m in a stakes race or a $5,000 claimer.”

Lopez, who competed in his first Breeders’ Cup race this year aboard Headache in the Classic, has been a regular on the New Jersey circuit for the past several summers. He won the elite Monmouth Park meet, when astronomical purses lured top riders from around the country, in 2010, but is considering taking a different path when Gulfstream closes its doors next April.

“Paco just bought a home in Fort Lauderdale and has had so much success the last two years at Gulfstream that staying in Florida during the winter is a no-brainer,” said Lopez’s agent Cory Moran. “But with Monmouth racing only a few days a week and the purses going up in New York this year, if it looks like we have more New York business coming our way during this meet, it might seal our decision to head in that direction when we leave here next spring.”

Tony Dutrow back at Gulfstream

Trainer Tony Dutrow skipped the 2011 Gulfstream Park meeting, opting instead to winter at Oaklawn Park. But Dutrow is back again this season with a stable of 25 horses, topped by Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies runner-up Grace Hall.

“This year has been a rebuilding one for me,” said Dutrow who is stabled at Palm Meadows. “I lost a number of my clientele for one reason or another. Edward Evans died, the Mercedes Stable didn’t send any horses back to the East Coast after California got dirt tracks, and I was fired by Rick Porter. I lost like five major people all together that made up maybe 90 percent of my stable and just didn’t feel like I had the horses to come to south Florida. I don’t know how, but we’ve managed to win over $5 million this year, and right now, I feel like I’m in good shape with horse flesh and really looking forward to having an even bigger year in 2012.”

Dutrow hopes to put an exclamation point on 2011 with a victory here Saturday by his promising 2-year-old prospect Ancient Rome in the Spectacular Bid. He also welcomed Grace Hall back to his barn Wednesday, with the Kentucky Oaks her first major goal at 3.

“Hopefully, she’ll have the same plans this winter as I do, which right now would be the Davona Dale at the end of February and the Gulfstream Oaks at the end of the meet,” Dutrow said.

Dutrow said he’s also a fan of the early opening here this year.

“I think the early opening is great,” Dutrow said. “New York is on the inner track now and Kentucky is done, so why not get down here and get into action. Most people don’t stick around until April anyway, and this way Gulfstream doesn’t have to beat its head against the wall to get some good things to happen in April.”

Ullapool puts in quick drill

Ullapool, a 2-year-old filly by Langfuhr, sizzled six furlongs in 1:12.40 for trainer Wesley Ward here Thursday morning. Ullapool, who owns a maiden win in three career starts, posted splits of 23.40 seconds, 34.80, and 58.80 before finishing around the turn at the one-mile pole.

“I thought about supplementing her and racing her against the boys in the Spectacular Bid on Saturday and right now I wish I had,” Ward said while Ullapool was pulling up after her work. “I’ll probably run her in a one-other-than allowance race and then bring her back against fillies in the Old Hat.”

The Grade 3 Old Hat will be decided at seven furlongs on New Year’s Day.

◗ The new 1 1/16-mile finish line will get an early test with Saturday’s seventh race, the first 1 1/16-mile race to be conducted here since 2004. The $53,500 optional claimer for 2-year-olds drew a field of eight.