by Tom LaMarra and Jim Freer
Gulfstream Park said Nov. 16 it has changed the dates of the grade I Florida Derby and grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes, and created a new stakes day for sprinters.
The Florida Derby will move to March 20—six weeks before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I)—from March 27. Thus, the Fountain of Youth will be held a week earlier on Feb. 20 to stay four weeks before the $750,000 Florida Derby. Both races are at 1 1/8 miles.
Earlier in 2009, Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots announced the grade II Louisiana Derby would be held one week later than usual in 2010. The new date, March 27, was Florida Derby day.
Churchill Downs Inc.-owned Fair Grounds announced a purse hike for the Louisiana Derby to $750,000 from $600,000 and an increase in the distance of the race from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/8 miles. A track official at the time called the New Orleans track “the best place in the country to prep 3-year-olds.”
Initially, Gulfstream officials gave no indication the Florida Derby date would change.
“The name of the game is (pari-mutuel) handle,” Gulfstream Park racing operations manager Bernie Hettel said in a statement. “We believe that the adjustments are for the good of the fans as well as good for the horsemen, and ultimately good for the industry.”
“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,” Gulfstream president and general manager Ken Dunn said.
“We took a look at the national picture, and importantly for us, the winter schedules at Eastern tracks," Dunn said. "We think there is an opportunity for the public, horsemen, and Gulfstream to not have the Florida Derby the same day as the Louisiana Derby and Fair Grounds’ other stakes that day.
"The Florida Derby deserves to be front-and center, here and away from Gulfstream.”
Dunn also said the Florida Derby and supporting stakes won't be the same day as the Dubai World Cup program from the United Arab Emirates.
Along with the Florida Derby, the March 20 program will offer the Swale Stakes (gr. II), Bonnie Miss Stakes (gr. II), Rampart Stakes (gr. II), and the Appleton Stakes (gr. IIIT).
On Jan. 9, the first Saturday of the 2010 meet, Gulfstream will inaugurate the “Gulfstream Sprint Showcase.” The card will feature the Spectacular Bid Stakes for 3-year-olds; Mr. Prospector Stakes (gr. III) for older horses; the Old Hat Stakes (gr. III) for 3-year-old fillies; the grade III Sugar Swirl Stakes (formerly the First Lady) for older fillies and mares; and the new Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint.
“One of our goals (in revising the schedule) is to have our opening Saturday, Jan. 9, as an event that will come right out of the gate and put national attention on Gulfstream Park," Dunn said. “We always have high visibility when we open. By taking races from different days and placing them on opening Saturday, we can create an energy boost as a way to get national attention and attract wagerers.”
The track’s 79-day meet begins Sunday, Jan. 3. Racing will be held five days a week on a Wednesday-through-Sunday schedule.