Gulfstream Park played musical stakes six weeks before its 68th season opens on Sunday, Jan. 3. It involves the much-heralded Run for the Roses.
Back in August, track officials announced the stakes schedule, which had the 59th Florida Derby tabbed for March 27, five Saturdays before the Kentucky Derby. But in November it was moved back to March 20, most likely to avoid conflicting with another traditional Derby prep, the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.
In turn, the $250,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes, usually held four weeks before the $750,000 Florida Derby, was reset for Feb. 20. Meanwhile, the Fountain of Youth will return to 1 1/8 miles from a mile, the same distance as the Florida Derby.
The $150,000 Holy Bull Stakes, staged at 1 1/8 miles the past two renewals, will revert back to a mile on Jan. 23.
“Gulfstream Park’s well-diversified racing program is universally well known, but the accent, for the owners, trainers and jockeys as well as the racing public, has always been on the development of 3-year-olds as they prepare for the Triple Crown,” said Kenn Dunn, new track president and general manager that guided Calder for many years.
“Fixing the date of the Florida Derby six weeks ahead of the Kentucky Derby puts the Florida Derby front and center in the consciousness of the American racing public,” Dunn explained.
Several trainers, however, voiced their displeasure with the change. Todd Pletcher, whose Scat Daddy won the Florida Derby in 2007, told the Daily Racing Form:
“I actually preferred it and thought the Florida Derby worked very well where it was . . . although I don’t think it would change my position if I had a 3-year-old who’d run well there.
“Every horse is an individual case, so it’s hard to say exactly what plans we might have at this point, although having the Louisiana Derby as an option five weeks out from the Kentucky Derby could certainly impact the situation.”
Thirty-nine horses than came out of the Florida Derby have captured 54 Triple Crown races, winning 21 times at Churchill Downs.
Another major change turns the first Saturday of the 79-day meeting into an afternoon of sprints featuring five stakes with purses totaling $475,000.
In all, 45 stakes, including 31 graded contests, are worth nearly $8 million. All but one is valued at $100,000 each.
Gulfstream purses were steadily hiked entering the 21st Century often exceeding $8 million. The number of stakes ranged from 41 to 47, with more than 30 graded contests annually.
In ’07, the 45 stakes were one less than the previous year, but purses were $1 million more than the previous year. Total value: a record $9.25 million.
In ’08, a record 48 stakes, worth $8.5 million, were staged. All but six stakes were valued at $100,000 or higher.
Last year’s opening day crowd on a Saturday surprised track offocials – it was the largest since ’04. Based on concession figures and wagering, the estimated turnout exceeded 15,000.
However, Gulfstream no longer gives out official attendance figures since it doesn’t charge admission to the track or casino, which opened in ’06.