02/13/2006 1:00AM

Florida series needs some fixing

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NEW YORK - Without question, the principal theme of racing at Gulfstream is the development of candidates for the Kentucky Derby, and the marquee race every year is the Florida Derby. But the series of races for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream is poorly considered, almost as if darts were thrown at a calendar. And with no racing at Fair Grounds this winter, the seemingly haphazard scheduling of these races at Gulfstream really sticks out like a sore thumb.

This is how Gulfstream this year scheduled its seven races that can be considered Derby preps for 3-year-olds on dirt: The one-mile Aventura Stakes was run on Jan. 7. The 1 1/8-mile Holy Bull and the 7 1/2-furlong Hutcheson Stakes were run on Feb. 4. On March 4, the 1 1/8-mile Fountain of Youth and the seven-furlong Swale Stakes will be run. And on April 1, the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby and the 6 1/2-furlong Spectacular Bid Stakes will be run.

Two issues are problematic about this schedule: the distance of the Hutcheson and the date of the Florida Derby. Regarding the Hutcheson, who ever heard of an important stakes race at a distance of 7 1/2 furlongs? And it's not like the distance of the Hutcheson is part of a logical progression. The race before it, the Aventura, is at a mile. The two after it, the Fountain of Youth and the Swale, are not at a mile.

As for the Florida Derby, it suffered last year when it was moved from its traditional position in the middle of March - a position that made it the most important Kentucky Derby prep for that month - to a no-man's land five weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Five weeks is too long to expect a horse to wait before running in a race like the Kentucky Derby. And in this day and age, it is probably too short a gap to allow for another prep race.

Gulfstream has every right to move its marquee race in an effort to extend the prime portion of its meet. But if it had to be moved, the Florida Derby could have been given a date that would make it a legitimate final prep for the Kentucky Derby. This year, that date would have been April 15. That is three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, and while that date would place the Florida Derby on the same day as the Blue Grass Stakes and the Arkansas Derby, three preps - the Wood Memorial, the Santa Anita Derby, and the Illinois Derby - will co-exist on the same day one week earlier, April 8.

If the Florida Derby had been scheduled on April 15 this year, here is how the rest of the 3-year-old program at Gulfstream might have looked: The series could have started on Jan. 7 with a seven-furlong Aventura and continued three weeks later, on Jan. 28, with a one-mile Hutcheson. Then in another four weeks, on Feb. 25, could have come the 1 1/8-mile Holy Bull, followed in another four weeks, on March 25, by the 1 1/8-mile Fountain of Youth, which would have left three weeks until the Florida Derby.

What about the Swale and Spectacular Bid? Easy. They could have been packaged in a mini-series of their own, affording late-starting 3-year-olds another way of getting to the Florida Derby. The Swale could remain at seven furlongs and could have been run on Feb. 25, the same day as the Holy Bull could have

been run. Then, a reconfigured Spectacular Bid, at a distance of one mile, could have been run four weeks later, on the new Fountain of Youth Day, leaving three weeks until the Florida Derby.

Makes sense, doesn't it? Too bad the actual stakes schedule for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream does not.