Gulfstream Park is graced by palm trees and blue skies, and its enthusiastic crowds give it an air of vitality that is increasingly rare in American racing. Yet this track's greatest distinction was evident from the results Saturday afternoon.

In the eighth race, Norton Street--a New York invader who had been plagued with bad racing luck in his brief career--beat his 10 rivals and paid $53.60 to win.

In the ninth race, Pilgrim Creek--who had flashed speed and tired at Calder Race Course--led all the way to win at odds of 88 to 1 and complete a pick three worth $66,363.

The feature race of the day, the Holy Bull Stakes, was supposed to be a showcase for Greenwood Lake, the Nick Zito-trained colt ranked as one of the leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby. But he was trounced by 40-to-1 Hal's Hope, who helped produce a trifecta payoff of $4,006.

These upsets occurred not because races at Gulfstream are fluky or inscrutable, but because they are so competitive. For the most part, the fields are large and wide open, a distinct contrast to the dismal fare that is commonplace at so many U.S. tracks. That's the reason so many simulcast bettors have made Gulfstream their principal focus. At their home tracks, they search for value by hooking up an 8-to-5 shot with a 5-to-2 shot in the exacta. At Gulfstream they can shoot for the moon.

What makes Gulfstream so challenging, of course, is the presence of so many horses who ship to Florida from far-flung parts of the country. Bettors have to judge the relative strength of horses from different circuits; they must identify the trainers who have the runners revved up and those are here for a vacation. They must look past the obvious and spot the sharpies trying to conceal their horses' form in order to cash a bet. And there is a wild-card factor involved in handicapping this winter: How many horses with good Churchill Downs form were being aided by milkshakes, clenbuterol or other drugs that were permissible in Kentucky but nowhere else?

Handicapping at Gulfstream can be further complicated by obstacles of the track's own making. The 1999 racing season was marred by a malfunctioning electric timer, operated by the Teleview Racing Patrol, that was responsible for inaccurate times in dozens of races. The dirt races appear to be accurate this winter, but the timer has evidently misfired in some turf races--such as one in which the first half mile was recorded in a preposterous 53 2/5 seconds. Bettors trying to follow the Gulfstream action on television are regularly thwarted by the camera operator, who zooms in for close-up shots in the stretch run that keeps most of the horses off the screen. When Greenwood Lake was attempting to unleash his celebrated late charge in the Holy Bull Stakes, he wasn't visible to television viewers during the last 18 seconds of the race.

To deal with all of the difficulties and complexities at Gulfstream, a horseplayer has to work hard and employ all of the resources that he can muster. There are three sources of information about the track that I consult daily:

"The Gulfstream Handicapper 2000" is a valuable reference book, in which author Jim Mazur profiles trainers at the track and offers statistical breakdowns on their performance in previous seasons: who is good with claims, layoffs and first-time starters, who gets his stable geared for him for the meet and who doesn't. Mazur noted that Scotty Schulhofer had won in the past with 37 percent of his horses making their first start of the Gulf meeting, and Schulhofer came out flying again in 2000, winning with a 13-to-1 shot and a 38-to-1 shot. The publication's website is www.proghandi.com.

"Handicapper's Report" is one of several California publications providing commentaries on horses' workouts, but no comparable service had ever been available at tracks in the East, until publisher Michael Goodman launched one for the Gulfstream meeting. His venture got off to an auspicious start when his clocker wrote of a workout: "Lunar Shadow was hard held and crying to run all the way--galloped out strongly under a snug hold." With no other evident handicapping merits, Lunar Shadow won a maiden race and paid $116.60. The information is made available daily to subscribers at www.hreport.com.

Calling "The Florida Handicapper" a tip sheet doesn't do it justice, because it's the best such publication I've ever read. Toby Callet clocks horses in morning workouts, studies films of races meticulously and knows all the angles in Florida racing. Callet has shown a flat-bet profit for five straight Gulfstream meets by ferreting out esoteric horses; his top selection in Friday's 10th race paid $99.20 to win. "The Florida Handicapper" is sold at the track and many simulcasting outlets, and the author recommends betting strategy daily at www.tobycallet.com.

Even when a bettor is equipped with a full arsenal of handicapping tools, he will rarely find it easy to win at Gulfstream. Certainly, he'll never grind out a slow, steady profit. The wide-open nature of the racing ensures that he'll have plenty of failures, but he can hope to emerge a winner with occasional big scores. There is no more exciting way to play the game.