The winter racing season officially arrives in the Miami area Nov. 30 when Gulfstream Park begins what it is calling the "Champions Meet" for 2013-14.
Gulfstream's traditional winter meet will have 90 race days through April 6. First post time will be 12:40 p.m. each day. It follows the first summer/fall racing in the Hallandale Beach, Fla., track's 75-year history.
And it will be a continuation of the head-to-head Saturday and Sunday racing that Gulfstream and Calder Casino & Race Course began in July.
Calder is in Miami Gardens, Fla., eight miles west of Gulfstream. Unless the two tracks can settle their bitter dispute over race dates, both have schedules that include racing on Saturdays and Sundays through the end of next June.
One sure bet this winter is that Gulfstream, with its rich stakes schedule, will expand the 2-to-1 margin that it has built over Calder in all-sources handle. But Calder vice president and general manager of racing John Marshall said his track plans to keep its schedule.
He said Calder expects that by running Friday to Sunday it can attract a significant number of simulcast and ADW bettors during winter months when several top tracks in northern states are not running.
Marshall said that during the week of Dec. 8, Calder will announce its stakes schedule for the first three months of 2014. He said the schedule will include several stakes races for 3-year-old males and several others for 3-year-old fillies.
There had been rumors that Calder's sister track, Churchill Downs, might give some of those races qualifying points for the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. But Marshall said the Calder stakes are being announced too late for Churchill Downs to add them to lists of Derby and Oaks qualifying races.
Meanwhile, Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo said he is optimistic that his track can match or even beat its record of $8.5 million in daily average all-sources handle that it set in 2012-13.
Some observers have suggested that racing year-round may take some of the luster away from the opening day and early weeks of Gulfstream's winter meet. But Ritvo disputed that, citing "the momentum we have been building while our horsemen from the north are arriving."
November was Gulfstream's best month yet in its head-to-head battle with Calder.
For the first eight weekend days in November, Gulfstream had average daily all-sources handle of about $2.7 million, compared with about $1.2 million for Calder, according to reviews of Equibase Co. charts by The Blood-Horse and by Gulfstream. Gulfstream had 65 races and Calder had 68 races over the eight days.
Gulfstream Winter Meet
Gulfstream will begin with a Friday through Sunday racing schedule. It will add Thursdays beginning Dec. 19, and will begin a Wednesday through Sunday schedule Jan. 1. The track will have 63 stakes races, with 34 of them graded.
The Nov. 30 features are a pair of ungraded $100,000 turf stakes at one mile for 2-year-olds. The Pulpit is for males and the Wait a While is for fillies.
"It will be a soft opening day by design," Ritvo said.
Gulfstream will begin generating more national attention Dec. 7 when it holds the Claiming Crown for the second year. The eight Claiming Crown stakes races are for horses that have run for claiming prices below various levels since Jan. 1, 2012.
Other major stakes days are:
* Jan. 18 -- Sunshine Millions with the $500,000 Classic and five other stakes for Florida-breds;
* Jan. 25 -- $400,000 Holy Bull (gr. III) for 3-year-olds;
* Feb. 8 -- $500,000 Donn Handicap (gr. I), $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf (gr. IT), and two other graded stakes;
* Feb. 22 -- $400,000 Fountain of Youth (gr. II) for 3-year-olds;
* March 29 -- $1 million Florida Derby (gr. I), $300,000 Gulfstream Oaks (gr. II), and five other graded stakes.
Gulfstream expects that average daily overnight purses will be about $425,000—similar to 2012-13—and speculates that average field sizes could be as high as 10 per race. The track has added 380 stalls next to its first turn (north side) to help accommodate the approximately two dozen trainers that moved their stables from Calder to Gulfstream this summer.
There are now 1,400 stalls at Gulfstream and 1,364 stalls at its Palm Meadows training center affiliate, about 40 miles away in Boynton Beach, Fla.
Todd Pletcher will seek his 11th straight Gulfstream training title. Chad Brown, Shug McGaughey, Ken McPeek, and Nick Zito are among other prominent retuning trainers.
Javier Castellano will seek his third straight jockey championship. Joel Rosario, John Velazquez, Joe Bravo, and Luis Suez also are among the returnees.
One major change will be raising the minimum Pick 6 wager from 10 cents to 20 cents. On days when the Pick 6 has multiple winners, the amount of the pool that is carried over will be raised from 60% to 70%.
"I don't think that running year-round will reduce the excitement (for Gulfstream's winter meet)," trainer David Fawkes said Nov. 23. "I can already feel the buzz."
Fawkes is among trainers who moved their stables from Calder to Gulfstream during the summer.
Officials of Calder parent Churchill Downs Inc. and Gulfstream parent The Stronach Group have remained in contact with a hope of reaching an agreement that could end head-to-head racing, Ritvo and Marshall each said. But neither is optimistic about the prospect of a deal.
Some observers have suggested that Calder could race Mondays through Wednesdays to reduce overlap with Gulfstream.
Marshall said Calder feels the national pool of bettors is not attractive on those days.
"Racing is becoming more and more a weekend sport," he said. "We have a good product, and the competition from northern tracks will not be as strong as during our other months."
Marshall noted that Calder's non-winter competition in the east includes Belmont Park, Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Saratoga Race Course, and Monmouth Park.
He said Calder will be disappointed if its handle for January through March is not as high as Gulfstream's summer/fall daily average of about $2.5 million.
Calder has about 1,800 stalls and has about 1,100 horses on site. That horse population suits Calder's current needs, Marshall said.
"People around the country know the quality of racing in Florida and there should be some good interest in Calder for the winter," said Bill White, who has won eight training titles at Calder.
In particular Calder, like Gulfstream, will have turf racing that many tracks do not have in the winter, he said.
Fawkes and several other horsemen have pointed to a widespread view that Calder will keep racing on weekends primarily because CDI wants to thwart The Stronach Group's expansion plans.
Marshall said that allegation is not correct.
No matter the motives, a January-March period is approaching in which Gulfstream will race five days a week and Calder will race three days a week, with about 4,000 horses available. Answers will start unfolding on whether Gulfstream can continue its handle growth of recent seasons and on the extent of Calder losses and their overall impact on CDI.
In addition to trailing Gulfstream in handle, Calder's host track revenues are on a path to decline from $23 million in fiscal 2012-13 to about $10 million in 2013-14.
A host track brings in simulcast signals from Thoroughbred venues outside Florida and redistributes them to other pari-mutuels in Florida.
Calder is losing market share to Gulfstream, which is running at least two days a week year-round, and Tampa Bay Downs.
Tampa Bay has controversial permission from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering to be a year-round host by racing on July 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014, the first and last days of Florida's fiscal year.
Tampa Bay will begin its 2013-14 meet Dec. 4.
Calder has asked the Florida DPMW to grant host track eligibility only to tracks like itself that are in the midst of a race meet with three or more race days a week.
Thus, for credibility, Calder needs to keep running at least three days a week.