05/16/2013 11:57AM

Delaware Park opens shortened meet


If it seems like spring has arrived later than usual at Delaware Park, you’re right. Instead of its customary opening in mid to late April, or the Saturday after the Kentucky Derby, as was done last year, Delaware launches its abbreviated 2013 season Saturday in conjunction with the Preakness, which takes place some 90 miles down Interstate 95 in Baltimore.

Delaware horsemen agreed to management’s request to run just 81 days, down from 100 scheduled dates in 2012 and 114 days run in 2011 after all-sources handle plummeted 18 percent last year. In order to keep daily overnight purses equal to last season’s average of roughly $200,000, four stakes were eliminated and $500,000 was cut from the stakes program. The casualties include two fall stakes for 2-year-olds, the Dover and the Blue Hen, along with the Endine, a six-furlong sprint for fillies and mares that as recently as 2011 was a Grade 3 event.

Not all the news is negative. The jewel of Delaware’s season, the $750,000 Delaware Handicap, was elevated to Grade 1 status for the first time since 1989. The July 20 race heads a 15-stakes package worth a collective $2.35 million.

Delaware retains four other graded stakes – the Grade 2 Delaware Oaks for 3-year-old fillies and a trio of Grade 3 events, the Obeah for fillies and mares, the Robert Dick Memorial for fillies and mares on turf, and the Kent for 3-year-olds on turf.

There are also nine graded stakes for Arabians, highlighted by a pair of Grade 1 events on Oct. 5, the Delaware Park Classic Handicap at 1 1/4 miles and the Buzz Brauninger Distaff Handicap at 1 1/8 miles.

Non-stakes horses will have opportunities to run for higher purses. For example, maiden special weight races will go for $38,000, a $2,000 increase from last spring. First-level allowance horses who ran for a $34,000 purse a year ago will now race for $37.000. The bottom claiming price, which was bumped up to $6,250 last year, is back to $5,000. But those horses will run for a $13,500 purse instead of the $12,000 that was available for bottom-rung claimers in 2012.

Jamie Ness, last year’s leading trainer at Delaware and the leading trainer in North America by wins in 2012, will have approximately 60 horses stabled on the grounds. Most of those are owned by Midwest Thoroughbreds, the leading owner at Delaware each of the past three seasons. Ness entered seven horses on opening day.