by Jim Freer
Calder Race Course will open its 38th season April 21 with a schedule that again focuses on what it calls “big event day” Saturdays with multiple stakes. Calder’s first highlight will be its inaugural Turf Million April 26, with four turf stakes with total purses of $1.15 million.
The Turf Million’s feature is the $400,000 Calder Derby (gr. IIIT) for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles. The Calder Derby had been one of the traditional features of the racetrack’s Festival of the Sun card in October.
“This is a marketing opportunity to help us get a fast start and as much early attention as we can,” Calder president Ken Dunn said.
The calendar, for South Florida weather and for stakes at other tracks, was the main reason Calder picked late April for a turf stakes card. “A lot of the big-name trainers are still down here (at the end of Gulfstream Park’s meet),” Dunn said. “Our turf course is fresh, and typically in late April, we are not into the rainy season.”
The Turf Million, seven days prior to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), will be on a Saturday on which there are relatively few other graded stakes at North American tracks.
Bettors at Calder and elsewhere will be able to bet on a “Calder Derby/Kentucky Derby Double” set up by Calder parent company Churchill Downs Inc. Calder is using Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager for the second leg. Betting interests will be the 23 horses in that pool plus the field.
“We doubt it will be a huge bet,” Dunn said. “But everyone knows the (Kentucky) Derby. By connecting it, we hope to create more interest for the Turf Million.”
Other Turf Million stakes, all non-graded, are the $300,000 Mairzy Doates Handicap for fillies and mares, 3-years-old and up, at 1 3/8 miles; the $250,000 Bob Umphrey Turf Sprint Handicap for 3-year-olds and up at five furlongs; and the $200,000 Calder Oaks for 3-year old fillies at 1 1/8 miles.
Since Calder announced the Turf Million in early February, racing secretary Mike Anifantis and other officials have been calling trainers of graded and other 2008 turf stakes winners to promote the event. For several days prior to the Turf Million, Calder will promote the event with South Florida broadcast and newspaper ads.
A fast start is important for Calder’s eight-month season, which will have economic challenges similar to those faced by all South Florida pari-mutuel facilities amid the economic slump and stepped-up competition from tribal casinos.
For starters, CDI announced April 9 that Dunn was stepping down as Calder president and as CDI executive vice president of Florida operations. He will remain an adviser to Calder through Aug. 1, 2008.
Dunn was interviewed by The Blood-Horse April 8. He later said his pending departure would not lead to any changes in the racing and marketing plans he discussed.
As of April 16, Calder had not signed 2008 contracts on purses, simulcasts, and projected slot-machine revenue with the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. CDI has not announced plans for a Calder casino that would have slot machines, but has said it might open one as soon as 2009.
Calder is entering 2008 without a purse overpayment. For its first condition book, average overnight purses and breeders’ awards will be about $215,000.
Dunn said he is “optimist by nature” and expects all-sources wagering will be sufficient to meet overnight projections. Last November, Calder temporarily reduced overnights by 10% until it made up for overpayments. Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering statistics show Calder’s on-track handle fell 24%, but that combined inter-track and interstate handle rose 18% during the 2007 portion of its season-ending Tropical meet.
With goals of focusing live and simulcast marketing on its most attractive months and keeping average purses higher with fewer races in some months, Calder will race only four days a week in June and August. It will race five days per week in other months, before racing almost every day in the second half of December.
Calder will hold its Summit of Speed sprint card July 12, and the Festival of the Sun Oct. 18. It will hold Grand Slam cards, each with at least two graded stakes, on Dec. 6, Dec. 13, and Dec. 27. Unlike in 2006 and 2007, Calder will not hold an Extreme Day. Those cards featured simultaneous dirt and turf races and clockwise-run turf races.
“We always planned to have Extreme Day for just two years,” Dunn said. “It got us some media attention, but did not attract large handle.”
Calder will hold its Calder meet from April 21-Oct. 19 and its Tropical meet from Oct. 20-Jan. 2, 2009.
In one change fans will notice, Ron Nicoletti will not be at Calder after 19 years as the track’s handicapper. Calder has eliminated Nicoletti’s position in what it calls a budgetary move.
Gulfstream has appointed Nicoletti to the full-time, year-round position of media manager. His duties include continuing his long-time role as handicapper and as a host of the track’s live race-day television coverage.
“Regarding Ron, it was essentially budgetary and was in no way a reflection on him or his performance here,” Calder communications director Michele Blanco said.
Calder will not have an in-house handicapper this year. The track will continue to provide what it calls “fan-friendly” racing data from Equibase in its program.
For several years, Nicoletti also had been paddock host for Calder’s on-site and simulcast TV coverage on its major stakes days.
On Turf Million Day, former TVG senior producer Meredith Gleaves will be the host for paddock coverage on in-house TV. She will not handicap races. That day, Hall of Fame jockeys Pat Day and Chris McCarron will join Gleaves, who will moderate their pre-stakes discussions. Day and McCarron will hold an autograph session prior to the day’s races.
Nicoletti has been prominent at South Florida tracks since 1984, his first year as handicapper at now-closed Hialeah Park. Nicoletti’s off-season work at Gulfstream will include managing its Silks simulcasting room and working on promotions for its slots casino. He will hold handicapping seminars and write a daily handicapping sheet on key simulcast races.
“I also will be a spokesman for Gulfstream, and will speak at Chamber of Commerce meetings and other events,” Nicoletti said.