01/06/2006 1:00AM

Handle dips in Wilma's wake


MIAMI - The 2005-2006 Tropical at Calder session that ended Monday boasted some outstanding stakes performances, as well as races for trainer and jockey titles that went down to the final day of the meet. But the most lasting memory of the 55-day meet can be summed up in two words: Hurricane Wilma.

Wilma, a Category 3 hurricane, made a direct hit on Calder Race Course on Oct. 24, a week after the Tropical meet's Oct. 17 opening. The storm caused extensive damage to the stable area and the clubhouse, as well as to the overall track property. It also destroyed the infield tote board and caused power outages that forced the track to cancel live racing for five days and to conduct abbreviated, turf-only cards on two other occasions while repairs were made to the safety rail on the main track.

Calder resumed its regular schedule in early November and completed the meet without further incident, although the storm was in part responsible for declines in average daily attendance and handle.

Ontrack wagering on Calder's live races averaged $400,886 daily, a decline of 9.3 percent from $441,781 at the corresponding 2004-2005 meet. All-sources handle on Calder races averaged $3.97 million daily, down 9.1 percent from the previous meet's $4.37 million. The average daily attendance at live races was down 6.5 percent, from 4,408 to 4,122.

"This has been one of the toughest years I can recall, with Mother Nature handing us one challenge after another," said the track's president, Ken Dunn. "Our team was forced to deal with three significant hurricanes this year - Dennis, Katrina, and Wilma - the latter of which adversely affected our Tropical meet. I am still amazed by the tireless efforts of our employees, especially our maintenance staff, to have Calder up and running after Hurricane Wilma."

On the track, the Tropical meet was a success. Among the highlights was Barbaro's easy victory on New Year's Day in the Grade 3 Tropical Park Derby. J'ray also established herself as a turf filly to reckon with this season by scoring a popular win the same afternoon in the Tropical Park Oaks.

The meet's only Grade 2 events went to Meteor Storm, who captured the W.L. McKnight Handicap, and Film Maker, who won the La Prevoyante. Those two long-distance turf races were part of Grand Slam II, one of four specially packaged multiple-stakes cards that also included the Florida Million.

Eddie Plesa Jr, who lost the Calder training title to Tim Ritvo on the final day of the meet, suffered a similar fate when Henry Collazo won a pair of races closing day to capture the Tropical crown with 17 winners. Plesa was again second with 16 wins. Todd Pletcher, Larry Pilotti, and Bill White dead-heated for third with 15 tallies apiece.

The jockey race went down to the final event on closing day. Jorge Chavez, who began the final card four winners behind Manoel Cruz, pulled within one of the lead heading into the finale, only to be thrown to the ground when his mount, Sweet Zeena, stumbled on the far turn. Chavez not only lost the the title, 68-67, but suffered a broken collarbone in the incident, which will keep him sidelined for at least six weeks.