Updated on 09/15/2011 12:16PM

Speed and Sun return

Calder Race Course
The Calder season includes the Summit of Speed.

MIAMI - Racing on the south Florida circuit shifts back to a familiar and comfortable site on Thursday: Calder Race course, which will operate for the next seven and a half months through the end of the Tropical at Calder session on Jan. 2, 2002.

This is the 31st season for Calder and the third under Churchill Downs Inc., which purchased the track from Kawasaki Leasings in January 1999.

There will be few if any changes to the racing schedule this year, which as usual will be divided into two meets. The Calder session runs from May 24 through Nov. 3 while the Tropical at Calder meet begins Nov. 4

As usual, the highlight of the season will be the track's marquee event, the $1.4 million Festival of the Sun, to be run Oct. 13. The second annual Summit of Speed, featuring in excess of $1 million in sprint purses, will be held on July 14.

Opening weekend highlights include Saturday's $150,000 Calder Breeders' Cup Handicap, featuring highweight Clearly a Queen against the younger Platinum Tiara and Monday's $75,000 Memorial Day Handicap for older horses on the dirt, which also has Hal's Hope, Fappie's Notebook, and Dancing Guy expected.

Sunday's card will include induction ceremonies for the Calder Hall of Fame's four newest members: Ralph Ziadie, Mike Gonzalez, Cobble View Stable, and The Vid.

Thursday's opening-day feature is the $30,000 added Spirit of Fighter Stakes at six furlongs for fillies and mares, led by 118-pound highweight Sugar and Spice.

Bob Umphrey, Calder's racing secretary, said his barn area will again be overflowing this year with several new faces and a couple of familiar ones, the latter group including trainers Phil Gleaves and Anthony Pecoraro, who have returned to south Florida following a short absence.

"I'm looking forward to a good season," said Umphrey. "I had 2,400 applications for just 1,700 stalls. And we've added Florida-bred supplements of 20 and 30 thousand dollars to several of our regular stakes, which should give Florida-breds more incentive to run and better opportunities to make some extra money.

"The Summit of Speed was a tremendous success last year, and I'm looking forward to doing even better this summer. We've added an extra $50,000 to the purses of both the 3-year-old sprints, making them worth $250,000 this year."

The jockey colony will have a different look, with perennial leaders Eibar Coa and Javier Castellano having moved their tack to Monmouth Park and Belmont, respectively, this season. Their vacated spots at the top of the standings figure to be fought for by Rosemary Homeister Jr., Rene Douglas, and Cornelio Velasquez, who returns here on a regular basis this season. Also back is apprentice Abel Castellano following a successful invasion of Kentucky, and the veteran Willie Martinez, who began his career in Florida a decade ago.

"Obviously we're anxious to get started, and like everybody else at the beginning of a new meet, I'm hopeful and expecting the new racing season will be better than the last and see no reason why we shouldn't be optimistic," said Ken Dunn, president of Calder.

In its inaugural year last summer, the Summit of Speed lured such nationally prominent horses as Caller One, Hurricane Bertie, and Swept Away to south Florida to win three of the four major stakes on the card.

"The goal of the Summit of Speed is to create a pocket of urgency during a long summer meet to make people want to come to the races and to do so around a core of good races," said Dunn. "And we're hoping to build on that promotion and make it even better."

Dunn said that while it might be difficult for the casual fan to see any tangible effects of Churchill's management, Calder's racing will continue to improve under the new owner.

"The impact and collective strength of being part of the Churchill Downs family will ultimately be an improvement of our racing product," said Dunn. "It will be a slow process, but ultimately we will be in the position to offer higher purses, which automatically increase the quality of the racing.

"In addition, with the primary focus of not having to look over our shoulder regarding racing dates seemingly over, we and other members of our industry can now begin to turn our attention to the next step, which is to find additional means to increase purse monies. We are beginning to fall far behind other states in that regard, and there is no reason why Florida with its resources shouldn't be the third or fourth leading state when it comes to average purses."