12/03/2011 12:11AM

Gulfstream Opener, Hopeful Downgrade


Hallandale Beach, FL -- I'm in sunny and windy Hallandale for the early Opening Day at Gulfstream Park today, and still reeling from the announcement yesterday that the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga has been downgraded to a Grade 2 race for 2012.

It's weird for Gulfstream to be opening on December 3 after decades of January or March (when Hialeah had the January-February dates) starts to the winter meeting, and it's going to be interesting to see what Gulfstream in December looks like. The opening-day card is a little thin, but the change of venue, the presence of some early-bird northern stables, and a couple of interesting 2-year-old races give it the feel of a start to winter racing rather than a mere relocation of the Calder meet. On balance it will probably work out for the best. as the April dates that now will go to Calder had a somewhat ghostly feel in recent years as the higher-quality stock left town for Keeneland a month before the end of the Gulfstream meet.

The opening-day stakes is the ungraded $100k Spectacular Bid at six furlongs for eight 2-year-olds. Luke of York, 2 for 2 on Polytrack, is the 5-2 ML favorite with G2 Nahua winner Vexor next at 3-1, but I wouldn't be surprised if Ancient Rome goes off favored by post time at much less than his 4-1 ML price. The Tony Dutrow-trained son of Roman Ruler was a 7 3/4-length maiden winner at Delaware last time at 3-to-10 and is nicely drawn outside the other speed in the race.

(If you're in the neighborhood, I'll be doing a free seminar and q-and-a session at Gulfstream in the Sport of Kings Room at the track Saturday starting at 11 a.m.)

It was a little surprising when the Spectacular Bid lost its G3 status a few years back, but nothing like the shock being felt in New York at the downgrading of the Hopeful to G2 status next year. The traditional closing-weekend feature of the Saratoga meeting, the Hopeful has long been the first Grade 1 race of the year in the east for 2-year-old males -- next year there won't be one until the Champagne the first weekend of October.

The Champagne will now also be the only Grade 1 dirt race for 2-year-old males next year outside of California, site of the Norfolk and Breeders' Cup Juvenile. All of the division's other Grade 1 races will be on synthetics (Del Mar Futurity, Breeders' Futurity, Hollywood Futurity) or grass (Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf).

There was a pleasing symmetry to the Grade 1 calendar for juveniles beginning almost simultaneously with the Del Mar Futurity and Del Mar Debutante in the west and the Hopeful and Spinaway in the east. The downgrade of the Hopeful upsets that balance and will only encourage people to start their 2-year-olds later and later.

It's also one for which no one was clamoring and doesn't seem particularly justified. This year's edition wasn't a stellar one, but it was just a year ago that Boys at Toscanova, who went on to be second in the BC Juvenile, and Stay Thirsty, who went on to win this year's Travers and Jim Dandy, were in the race. Why the rush to reduce it to the same graded status at the Saratoga meet as the With Anticipation, an over-graded juvenile grass race usually composed of maidens and second-time starters?