09/08/2004 12:00AM

Florida Derby moved to early April date


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Gulfstream Park does not have a grandstand or a clubhouse, but as of Wednesday it did have an $8.4 million stakes schedule for the 2005 meeting, which begins on Jan. 3.

Gulfstream Park is undergoing a major renovation project that includes a new 1 1/8-mile main track and a one-mile turf course. The 2005 meeting will house fans under tents and other temporary structures, as the new grandstand and clubhouse are not scheduled to be completed until 2006.

Highlighting the 2005 stakes schedule will be the $1 million Florida Derby, which has been moved back three weeks from its traditional spot on the second Saturday of March to April 2. The Grade 1 Florida Derby will be the anchor leg of a series of 3-year-old stakes that also includes the $300,000 Fountain of Youth, a Grade 2, on March 5; the $150,000 Holy Bull, a Grade 3, Feb. 5; and the $125,000 Aventura Jan. 8.

"I think in the long run moving the Florida Derby to the first week in April will help our 3-year-old program and give the race much more prestige, as it will mark the final Kentucky Derby prep for most members of the field," said the track's racing secretary, Dave Bailey.

Florida Derby Day will also includes four other graded stakes, the Grade 2 Orchid Handicap, Grade 2 Pan American Handicap, Grade 3 Skip Away Handicap, and Grade 3 Artax Handicap.

Bailey has packaged many of his most important stakes on the same cards, a promotion Gulfstream is billing as "Spectacular Saturdays." There will be five such programs during the meet, including the third annual Sunshine Millions, pitting Florida-breds against California-breds in a one-day series of eight stakes held simultaneously at Gulfstream and its sister track Santa Anita. The afternoon's main event, the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic, will be decided at Gulfstream in 2005.

"Multiple stakes days have become increasingly popular among fans around the country," said Bailey. "They not only prove good for business, but in our particular case they work out well spacing-wise in most of our divisions."

The Grade 1 Donn Handicap remains the premier event for older horses on the stakes program. The race highlights a card on Feb. 5 that also includes the Grade 2 Davona Dale, Grade 3 Holy Bull, Grade 3 Deputy Minister Handicap, and the Old Hat Stakes.

Because of the configuration of the new main track, Bailey had to change the distances of some of his major stakes, including both the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth which will now be decided at 1 1/8 miles instead of their traditional distance of 1 1/16 miles. He has also shortened the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap from 1 1/4 miles to 1 3/16 miles.

"I'm really excited about our stakes program, and I'm looking forward to a good year," said Bailey. "The grass is already growing well on the new turf course. It's even surprised me how well it's filled in already, and eventually it will allow us to run many more turf races per day during the upcoming meet."

Gulfstream's president, Scott Savin, is confident the turf course will be fully grown and ready for use by opening day.

"We already have about 80 percent growth on the course in just five weeks and plan to sprig the bare spots again next week," said Savin. "I expect we'll be able to run four turf races a day, if not at the start of the meet by the end of January at the latest."

The base for the dirt track is already in place and, according to Savin, the main track will be fully operational by the time the barn area opens on Nov. 8.