04/04/2013 3:51PM

Calder meet opens with Gulfstream conflict looming

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MIAMI – Despite going into the meet without a signed purse contract with the horsemen and facing the prospect of racing head to head with his crosstown neighbor Gulfstream Park beginning July 1, Calder general manager John Marshall was decidedly upbeat about the 2013 Calder meet, which opens Saturday with a 12-race program featuring the $250,000 Calder Derby. The April 6 opening is the earliest in the history of the track.

The volatile south Florida circuit became even more volatile this winter with the announcement that Gulfstream Park had applied for summer racing dates beginning July 1, followed by Calder’s counterpunch of applying for year-round racing starting the same day. But for the time being, at least, Calder will stand alone, operating four days a week through June 30, then cutting back to three days a week. The Calder meet runs through Aug. 31, with the Tropical meet picking up the next day and running through Dec. 29.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish here this season,” Marshall said. “This is our earliest opening ever and the first time I can remember opening day falling on a Saturday. We have a pretty healthy field of 3-year-olds in the Calder Derby and we’re also looking forward to getting some of our top 3-year-old races – like the Foolish Pleasure later this year, the Tropical Park Derby, and the Calder Derby in 2014 – to get on the list of races offering qualifying points for next year’s Kentucky Derby.”

Marshall said he is expecting to receive a short-term extension from the horsemen regarding the purse contract so as not to disrupt opening weekend. He also is hoping to make the best of going head to head with Gulfstream, not only this summer but through the winter of 2014.

“Obviously, we’re not thrilled with the idea of going up against Gulfstream, but it’s the new reality and we’re just going to have to deal with it the best we can,” Marshall said. “That’s one reason we trimmed back our live racing schedule to three days in an effort to help mitigate the business end of going head to head. The key of having five days of racing a week in our market is growing the horse population. There’s no way we could both make it with just the same Calder-based population. But if Gulfstream can add a new mix to their stable area, and we can make things lucrative enough, it could be very attractive for owners and trainers to compete here in the summer.”

Racing secretary Mike Anifantis says his barn area, which can house as many as 1,800 horses, was only about two-thirds full this week. But he was expecting an influx of horses from Tampa Bay Downs when that track closes later this month as well as a new crop of 2-year-olds shipping down shortly from the farms in Ocala.

Even without a signed contract with the horsemen, overnight purses average $180,000 in the first condition book, up about 10 percent from the conclusion of the 2012 Tropical at Calder meet, according to Marshall.

“We’re working on a short-term extension from the horsemen to give us a little breathing room to help get the meet off to a good start,” said Marshall, “as well as to give some time for all the issues facing us, including the complexities brought on by the simulcast situation that exists between all three Florida Thoroughbred tracks, a chance to sort themselves out.”

Speak Logistics, third behind Orb and Violence in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, will be heavily favored to win the 1 1/8-mile Calder Derby, which was switched from the turf to the main track in hopes of luring some potential Kentucky Derby candidates. Speak Logistics is trained by Eddie Plesa Jr., whose Itsmyluckyday finished second last Saturday in the Grade 1 Florida Derby and is considered to be among the major players in the Kentucky Derby picture.

Speak Logistics was originally being pointed to the Grade 1 Blue Grass and one last chance to earn enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, but Plesa opted to take the more conservative route, bypass the Derby, and possibly aim for a race like the Preakness with a big effort Saturday.

Sky Captain, somewhat of a disappointment thus far this season for trainer Mark Casse, will add blinkers in the hopes of getting his game back on track following a 10th-place finish in the Grade 3 Gotham. Sky Captain did finish a strong second behind Cerro in his only previous try at nine furlongs earlier this winter under first-level allowance conditions at Gulfstream.

Elmutahid, an impressive allowance winner at 1 1/8 miles over a sloppy track in his 3-year-old debut at Gulfstream, will attempt to bounce back from a ninth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth. Elmutahid, a son of Street Cry, will race on Lasix for the first time in the Calder Derby.

Aside from Speak Logistics, the local contingent will be led by Sr Quisqueyano, runner-up to Itsmyluckyday in the Gulfstream Park Derby, and Reporting Star, who’ll try dirt for the first time following his third-place finish in the Grade 3 Palm Beach.

Offlee Fast, Michael With Us, and Joshua’s Comprise complete the field.