HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., December 2, 2012—The first weekend of the 2012-13 Gulfstream Park meeting is in the books and there are plenty of smiling faces lighting up the immediate area.

The widest cheers appear to be a triple dead heat among Claiming Crown “King” Ken Ramsey, jockey Joel Rosario, and Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo.

And if Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders President Dan Metzger were still in town, it would have made for an all pearly-whites superfecta.

In effect, Gulfstream Park may have saved the Claiming Crown. When the event was held last year at the Fair Grounds, five races attracted five small fields with no buzz whatsoever.

But with Gulfstream’s marketing department aggressively promoting the opening day event, that effort paid dividends.

It wouldn’t qualify as an upset, then, if the Claiming Crown found a permanent home in South Florida.

With purse help culled from an agreement with the Florida horsemen, and with a $25,000 staging fee from Gulfstream, seven Claiming Crown races drew 135 entrants, albeit with a handful of cross-entered horses.

On Sunday, Ramsey was still basking in the glow of his personal superfecta on the Claiming Crown card: Four wins, including the centerpiece Jewel with 16-1 chance Parent’s Honor.

Rosario, making his first full-time foray into Gulfstream Park, jumped out to a fast early lead with six winners in the first two days of racing via a pair of riding triples.

Parenthetically, we’re sure that Corey Lanerie, making his first visit to Gulfstream, is smiling, too. He has only one win, but it was a big one; the Claiming Crown Emerald with Nikki’s Sandcastle.

Of course, the talent waters will become much deeper in the coming weeks. And it’s worth noting here that Javier Castellano, last year's defending riding champion with a record 112 wins, won the meet lidlifter.

Ritvo, meanwhile, is amazed that a featured card boasting starter allowance claimers could generate handle from all sources of $12.2 million. Those are big day-like numbers, Donn day-like numbers.

And consider that a race like the Donn might handle over $2 million on its own; the balance of the card accounting for the rest of the betting. By any measure, opening day was remarkably successful.

The positive trend continued on Sunday. Handle was up 10 percent with nine races vs. 2011’s 10-race card. Even the Rainbow 6, introduced with seed money last year but without a $50,000 sweetener this time, attracted $23,000 worth of dimes in its meet debut.

And wouldn’t know that the jackpot was hit; the lone ticket-holder taking down over $17,000.

But it’s not all sunshine and smiles in South Florida. It seldom is.

With Churchill Downs Inc. charging Calder-based horsemen $10 per horse, per stall, per day, and backstretch workers $10 per unit, two people to a room—essentially a cot without the three hots—Florida’s infighting tradition continues.

The levy, which rank and file Calder horsemen can ill afford, has caused a dispute with Calder management and resulted in an unofficial, partial boycott of the Gulfstream entry box.

In response to the fee, only 77 horses were entered for Wednesday, a program that offers only eight races, as does Thursday’s, for which 91 horses were entered.

It will be interesting to see how horses many remain after scratch time.

Insiders report that Gulfstream is dealing with the issue quietly. In the interim, temporary stalls are being added at Gulfstream. Over 200 stalls are available at Palm Meadows in Boynton Beach until it hosts a horse sale in mid-January.

The announcement that Calder horsemen would be made to pay stall rent was not made until after Gulfstream’s racing schedule was set and stalls were allotted for those intending to race in Hallandale Beach.

The elephant in the room is nothing short of the fate of top class Thoroughbred racing in South Florida.

Since getting slots and poker, any improvements made at Calder have been on the casino side, not the racing side. The backstretch there is badly in need of attention.

However, the future success of Gulfstream is linked inexorably to an expansion of the Gulfstream Village, which the Stronach Group now owns in total.

The future construction of a stand-alone casino and hotel, tied to a more equitable tax rate, is needed not only for the successful implementation of Stronach Group’s entertainment-destination vision but the near term viability of the complex’s commerce and continued good health of world class Thoroughbred racing.

For this to occur, an agreement must be forged between Calder, which shows no indication that horse racing will be emphasized in the future, and Gulfstream Park, whose future also includes playing host to the Breeders’ Cup once again.

To make South Florida racing whole, year-round racing at Gulfstream Park appears to be the only reasonable solution. In the big picture, Calder’s decision to charge its horsemen stall rent looks like a possible opening salvo.

Perhaps the positioning for forging future agreements already has begun.