Game On

by Ed Meyer

posted on January 4, 2009 in General Discussion | No Comments >>

For me, nothing says Kentucky Derby quite like the opening of the Gulfstream Park winter meeting. And how we do love opening days!

Actually, today’s Gulfstream card is an excellent start to the South Florida racing season. Four races for three-year-olds, including the six-furlong Spectacular Bid Stakes — one of two added-money events, the other being the Grade 3 Hal’s Hope, on the program — and plenty of turf racing, too, are the highlights.

Sa-weet!

Eastern tracks, looking to heighten awareness of their own programs, are featuring early races for Derby-aged colts. Aqueduct carded the mile and a sixteenth Count Fleet Stakes this afternoon, a two-turner that helped launch Smarty Jones’ Derby run.

And while six furlongs proves little in a Derby context, the Gulfstream sprint is a good place to start, seeing if your horse can handle salty competition.

Gulfstream, of course, is well aware of its place on the Derby trail. In 2005, it moved its seminal event, the Florida Derby, to five weeks out from the roses run, a paean to both modern training philosophy and equine fragility. The tack stroke gold with Barbaro.

Last September, Gulfstream again revised its Derby prep schedule. The 2009 G1 Florida Derby remains at 1 1/8 miles and will be run March 28. A sign of the times, however, its purse was cut from $1 million to $750,000.

Gulfstream wisely shortened the G1 Fountain of Youth distance from 1 1/8 miles to a mile. That race, run on February 28, remains four weeks in advance of the Florida Derby. The 1-1/8 miles Holy Bull was shifted to January 31 for those more advanced, or to accommodate trainers seeking two turns or unwilling to turn back to one turn.

This move makes sense. Last year, Gulfstream hoped that a mile and three-sixteenths in mid-April would be attractive to trainers of late developers seeking last-chance graded earnings. The thinking proved better in theory than in practice, but at least Gulfstream made a worthy proactive attempt.

Today’s Spectacular Bid is the first of two one-turn stakes providing a distance progression. The G2 Hutcheson Stakes at seven furlongs on January 30th, is the other good place to get going and is, of course, a natural progression to the one-turn Fountain of Youth.

As a nine-furlong event, only one horse used the Fountain of Youth last year as a prep for the Florida Derby.

Gulfstream Park is also turning back its racing calendar. It has moved to a five-day race week with the hope of producing larger fields and attracting more live bodies on days that historically have proven more popular than Mondays.

In all, Gulfstream will card 31 graded stakes in 2009, including three on Friday, a move that should prove popular with visiting snowbirds. A newly reached ADW accord will make the Gulfstream product available from virtually every simulcast locale.

The track will again host the popular and high volume Sunshine Millions program on January 24th, which includes the $1-million Sunshine Millions Classic at 1 1/8 miles for olders. It is one of eight Sunshine Millions stakes rotating between Gulfstream and Santa Anita Park carded for Florida-breds and California-breds only.

Aqueduct’s Count Fleet, meanwhile, will showcase certain odds-on favorite Haynesfield for the Steve Asmussen/Ramon Dominguez team. Haynesfield won his two-turn and winter-track debut by a short pole, whipping up on New York-breds in the Damon Runyon. His pedigree might not get him the Derby distance but looks long enough for today’s trip.

The Spectacular Bid drew a field of eight headed by the Birdonthewire Stakes winner, the extremely fast You Luckie Mann, the fastest three-year-old sprinter in the land to date. Strong competition is expected to come from Silent Valor, winner of the G3 Sapling at 2, and working strongly at his Palm Meadows base for Todd Pletcher and Johnny Velazquez.

If this all sounds familiar, it should. Happy New Year, indeed, and let the games begin anew.

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