The road to the 2005 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) took an intriguing twist Wednesday when Gulfstream Park officially revamped its racing schedule for 3-year-olds.
The Florida Derby, traditionally run the second weekend in March, will now be held three weeks later on April 2, competing for top horses with three prominent Kentucky Derby preps on April 16 -- the Arkansas Derby (gr. II), Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) and Wood Memorial (gr. I).
The Kentucky Derby is May 7, with the major preps at Oaklawn Park, Keeneland, and Aqueduct remaining in their usual slot of three weeks before the run for the roses at Churchill Downs.
The Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), the West Coast's top Kentucky Derby prep, will be run April 9, four weeks before the Derby.
With a three-week or longer span between races for most top Thoroughbreds, Gulfstream's move leaves owners and trainers without the option of running their horses in the Florida Derby and coming back for a final prep in Arkansas, Kentucky, or New York.
Last year, for example, The Cliff's Edge was fourth in the Florida Derby, came back and won the Blue Grass, and then finished fifth in the Derby as one of the favorites.
Gulfstream Park, owned by Frank Stronach's Magna Entertainment Corp., is currently undergoing major reconstruction, with the 1 1/16th-mile main track being transformed to a 1 1/8th-mile oval. The meet will run from Jan. 3-April 24.
While the change is intended to increase business at Gulfstream, the Derby prep season is now a bit overcrowded in April.
"It's another example of racing not working collectively," said Bill Nader, senior vice president of the New York Racing Association, which operates Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. "If the goal as an industry is to devise the best calendar for 3-year-old opportunities leading to the Triple Crown, this is a step backward.
"It's a very crowded calendar. To run in the Florida Derby and run back in one of those three is out of the equation."
The last time the Florida Derby has been run later than mid-March was in 1987, when it was contested on April 4.
Keeneland will go about business as usual.
"We want to keep the Blue Grass a viable steppingstone to the Triple Crown events," said Jim Williams, the track's director of communications. "Keeneland will continue to strive to make the Blue Grass the best possible race, and try to draw the best and most competitive field that we can."
Other 3-year-old races at Gulfstream were changed to conform to the new date for the $1 million Florida Derby. The Aventura Stakes, normally run at the end of the meet, will be Jan. 8; the Holy Bull is Feb. 5 (three weeks earlier than '03); and the Fountain of Youth, along with the Swale Stakes, is March 5 (also three weeks earlier).
The distances of the races have changed, too. The Aventura drops from 1 1/16 miles to 7 1/2 furlongs; and the Holy Bull (gr. III) and Fountain of Youth (gr. I), formerly run at 1 1/16 miles, will be run at 1 1/8 miles.
"I think the 3-year-old series provides a great opportunity for horsemen with Triple Crown hopefuls to test their runners on a gradual basis, with both competition and distance increasing as the season advances," Gulfstream president Scott Savin said. "With the extra time between races and the closer proximity of the Florida Derby to the Kentucky Derby, Gulfstream is the perfect place to base a 3-year-old with classic aspirations."