12/17/2009 1:00AM

For many 2-year-old stars, it all started here


Every year beginning in January, the racing spotlight is cast on Gulfstream Park, the premier track in Florida, which consistently offers some of the best winter racing in the country.

Yet Florida racing deserves more than just seasonal attention. Calder Race Course, which runs from late April until the start of Gulfstream, has become a hot spot for up-and-coming 2-year-olds in recent years, as evidenced by the results of horses who raced there this year.

In 2009, at least four of the elite juveniles in the country started at Calder, led by Jackson Bend, who swept the Florida Stallion Series. D' Funnybone, Homeboykris, and Blind Luck won graded stakes in other states after starting their careers with maiden wins at Calder.

While those Florida victories might have been missed by some horseplayers, they weren't by bloodstock agents and buyers. All four juveniles were bought privately in 2009, either in full or in part. Most recently, majority interest in Jackson Bend was sold by Jacks or Better Farm in late October to owner Robert LaPenta, and Jackson Bend is now with Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito.

On the strength of a 5-for-6 year, capped by a 2 3/4-length triumph in the In Reality Stakes in which he earned a 100 Beyer Speed Figure, Jackson Bend is considered one of the early favorites for next year's Kentucky Derby.

Although 2009 was a notable year for juveniles in South Florida, the success of horses from there is nothing new. Last year, Vineyard Haven won stylishly at Calder in his debut before being bought privately by Louis Lazzinnaro, Diamond Pride LLC, and the late Bobby Frankel.

After Vineyard Haven won the Grade 1 Hopeful and Champagne later under Frankel's training, Godolphin Racing purchased him, and he went on to win this year's Grade 1 De Francis Dash as a 3-year-old for trainer Saeed bin Suroor.

Jack Brothers, a partner in Hidden Brook Farm and a bloodstock agent that closely monitors Florida racing, calls the state "juvenile country."

Brothers said Calder has developed into a "proving ground for young horses over the years" because of how the track caters its racing schedule around 2-year-olds. Its close proximity to Ocala, Fla., a major breeding center, adds to the competition, he said, along with major 2-year-olds-in-training sales at OBS and Fasig-Tipton in Florida.

The presence of the sales have led to "a migration away" from wintering and preparing horses in locations such as Aiken, S.C., Brothers said.

When horses go unsold in these sales, some will be raced at Calder as an alternative.

"At Calder, the money is no good, but it's a steppingstone for selling horses," said Juvenal Diaz, who owns and operates Omega Farm in Ocala, Fla.

Diaz did just that this year with Blind Luck, whom he sent to Calder to race after she failed to meet her reserve when bidding stalled on her for $10,000 at OBS in April.

Diaz felt Blind Luck had talent but wanted to make her as attractive as possible to buyers, so he and trainer James Hatchett put her in a maiden $40,000 race in her debut June 21. She won by 13 1/4 lengths. By starting her for this tag, Diaz knew she would become eligible to starter races, which are offered regularly in California and other states.

"It gives them a free race," he said.

The dominant win gained her notice, and Diaz sold her after the race to owners Mark Dedomenico, John Carver, and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.

Sent west, she won a starter race - the "free race" Diaz mentioned - before running second in the Del Mar Debutante, first in the Oak Leaf, and third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Yet there's more to the success of Calder juveniles than the track simply having a lot of 2-year-olds. Calder has an attractive stakes program for 2-year-olds, which encourages owners to breed their horses in Florida and race there.

This year offered the richest year of racing ever for Florida-bred 2-year-olds, according to the Florida Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders' Association, with nearly $4 million available in statebred purses, led by a 20-race, $2.7 million stakes program.

Diaz said skilled horsemen in Florida and a deep, sandy track at Calder further aid young horses there. He called Calder "probably the best track in the country."

Diaz certainly has plenty of knowledge about different racetracks. According to Daily Racing Form statistics, as a jockey from 1976-2000, he rode in 20,318 races, winning 3,118 while competing everywhere from Fair Grounds to Hawthorne Race Course.

"People don't realize it, how good a track Calder is," he said. "Look how many times you'll see a 2-year-old with five, six, seven, eight, maybe nine starts before December. Where else do you see that?"