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Calder Ready for Early Opening April 9

South Florida track is getting started two weeks earlier than in previous years.

Calder Casino & Race Course will begin its 2012 season April 9, and one of its first tasks will be making fans around the country aware that it is opening two weeks earlier than in previous years.

The Miami Gardens, Fla., track will have racing on 150 days through Nov. 30.  Racing will shift back to neighboring Gulfstream Park the following day.

Calder’s traditional dates have been from late April through early January of the following year.  But after Gulfstream threatened to race head-to-head in December 2011, the two tracks earlier last year agreed to a date swap.

Calder lost the attractive December dates. In return, it is adding two weeks this April and has improved its relationship with Gulfstream.

“We will have some challenges this year, but we also feel that we can build a strong April program for our local horsemen and for those who might want to keep some horses in South Florida for several more weeks,” said John Marshall, Calder’s vice president and general manager for racing.

“The biggest early challenge will be letting people know we are back,” Marshall said.

He expects that racing fans in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale market will be aware that Calder is running.  So Calder will instead put its advertising focus on national trade publications and their websites.

Calder will have its Calder meet until Aug. 31, with racing Thursdays through Sundays and first post time of 12:55 p.m.

Calder will begin its three-month Tropical meet on Sept. 1.  It will have a Wednesday through Sunday schedule, with first post of 12:30 p.m.

Early marketing will be built around a trio of turf stakes races, one per Saturday in April and each with a purse of $100,000 or higher.

The dates and races are:
*April 14 – $150,000 Calder Derby, at 1 1/16 miles on turf for 3-year-olds. Calder did not run this stakes during its 2011 meet.  Marshall is hoping for a strong field that will start the process of regaining the graded status the race had during the previous decade.
*April 21 – $125,000 Miami Mile (gr. IIIT), for 3-year-olds and up.
*April 28 -- $100,000 Calder Oaks, at 1 1/16 miles on turf for 3-year-old fillies.  Calder did not run this stakes during its 2011 meet.  Marshall said the track plans to make it a fixture on its April calendar.

In one sign of cooperation between the two southeast Florida tracks, Gulfstream is keeping its stables and its affiliate Palm Meadows training center open until the end of April.

Todd Pletcher, Christophe Clement, and Peter Walder are among trainers who are keeping some horses at one of those sites to race at Calder, said Phil Combest, an owner/trainer who is president of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

Pletcher and Clement are among the trainers who have nominated a total of 36 horses for the Calder Derby.  Marshall said he expects both will have a horse in the race, and is expecting a large field.

Calder will schedule three turf races most days in April.  Because the month is part of South Florida’s dry season, Marshall hopes those races will stay on that surface and help Calder’s handle.

Marshall also hopes that the new four-race Calder Starter Series will generate some fan interest over April and May.

The series is open to 4-year-olds and up that have run for a claiming price of $20,000 or less in 2011 or 2012.

The races have $50,000 purses and are two weeks apart, with two on turf and two on dirt at distances from seven furlongs to 1 1/16 miles.  The horse with the most points will earn a $5,000 bonus for its trainer.

There are 74 nominees, which Marshall said is more than what Calder expected.  Many of them have raced in overnight stakes at Calder and in higher level allowance/optional claiming races at Gulfstream.

“I think it is great,” said Jose Garoffalo, a Calder-based trainer who nominated four horses. “This gives you a chance to run these horses for a good purse and not have to worry about them being claimed.”

Garoffalo and Combest both said they would like Calder to have similar series for fillies and for 3-year-olds.
“We could have this series again later this year and would consider a fillies series,” Marshall said.

“We are seeing strong interest in our first series, and that is an indication of how our horsemen are ready to come back to Calder,” he said.

“The racing at Gulfstream has some of the best horses in the country, and the purses are good for all of us,” Garoffalo said.  “But it will be good to be back at Calder, where we have a better chance of winning. The schedule was different this time (at Gulfstream), but I think the northern trainers did about the same.

As at previous Gulfstream meets,  the majority of this season’s races were won by trainers who spend most of each year at tracks outside Florida. Comparative data are not readily available.

Calder and other tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc. generally do not release data on handle.

Marshall said Calder’s all-sources handle was up about 4% in 2011 compared with 2010.

He said Calder is “cautiously optimistic” for another increase in 2012.

A fast April start in wagering and a summer that is relatively dry could be keys, he added. Because of wet weather, Calder took 198 races off the turf in 2011 and 150 in 2010.

Calder is opening its meet with signed contracts with the Florida HBPA on purses, simulcasting and advance deposit wagering,

As of April 1, Calder had an underpayment of about $3.3 million in its purse account.  That includes money from this year’s slot machine revenues at Calder’s casino and from its revenue split on simulcasts from Gulfstream.

Calder will open its meet with average daily overnight purses of $165,000. It began last year at $170,000 and finished at $182,750 following an increase in June.

Marshall said that Calder is “constantly monitoring the purse account” and hopes that it will be able to have a purse increase.

The Florida HBPA would like a higher starting daily average but it realizes that Calder is closely monitored by CDI to avoid an overpayment, Combest said.

Highlights of Calder’s 2012 schedule include:
*July 7 – Summit of Speed, with four graded sprint stakes including the $400,000 Princess Rooney Handicap (gr. I)
*Oct. 13 –Festival of the Sun, highlighted by the two final legs of the Florida Stallion Stakes series for 2-year-olds
*Nov, 10 – Florida Million, with eight stakes for Florida-breds at purses of $100,000 or higher.