08/05/2011 8:29AM

Gulfstream Park announces stakes schedule; Fountain of Youth shortened to 1 1/16 miles

Bob Coglianese
Soldat wins the 2011 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park. The race will be shortened from 1 1/8 miles to 1 1/16 miles in 2012.

Gulfstream Park has announced a 53-race stakes schedule worth $9 million for its 2011-12 meeting, which will open one month earlier than usual on Dec. 3 and end April 8.

Aside from the early opening, the season will feature several new wrinkles, including the installation of a second finish line down the stretch on the main track to allow Gulfstream to conduct races at 1 1/16 miles for the first time since the new facility was built in 2005. Among the races that will be decided at the distance are the Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth on Feb. 26 and the inaugural Gulfstream Park Derby for newly turned 3-year-olds on New Year’s Day.

This year’s Fountain of Youth was won by Soldat at 1 1/8 miles.

The 2011-12 stakes program includes 33 graded races and will again be highlighted by the $1 million Florida Derby on March 31. The Florida Derby, which is slotted five weeks out from the Kentucky Derby, was run a year ago on Sunday but has been pushed back to a Saturday in 2012 to avoid falling on Palm Sunday.

The 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby will highlight a card that features seven stakes races, six of them graded, worth nearly $1.9 million, including the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks.

The first graded stakes of the meet will be the Grade 3 Sugar Swirl on Dec. 10.

Other big days include Feb. 11, which features both the Grade 1 Donn Handicap and Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, and the Sunshine Millions card on Jan. 28.

“We are very excited and looking forward to our upcoming season and building off last year’s success,” Gulfstream president and general manager Timothy Ritvo said. “We believe the stakes schedule offers the perfect program for 3-year-olds pointing toward the spring classics, and there are numerous opportunities for older horses on both the dirt and turf.

“While running the Florida Derby last season on the first Sunday in April was a huge success, a similar schedule this year would have resulted in running the Florida Derby on Palm Sunday. Because we don’t want to exclude our customers and fans in New York from one of our biggest days, we decided to run the Florida Derby this season on the last Saturday in March.”