04/23/2003 12:00AM

Spotlight falls on 2-year-olds


MIAMI - Racing on the south Florida circuit returns to Calder Race Course and settles in for the long haul beginning Friday with the first of 181 programs in a season that runs through Jan. 2, 2004.

As usual the dates will be split into two meets, the 128-day Calder meet, which continues through Oct. 24, and the 53-day Tropical at Calder meeting.

Once again, the emphasis for the Calder season will be on 2-year-olds, culminating with the track's cornerstone event, the $1.55 million Festival of the Sun program on Oct. 11. The Festival of the Sun includes the $400,000 In Reality and My Dear Girl stakes, finales of the rich Florida Stallion Stakes.

The Festival of the Sun is one of five multiple-stakes days during the year. The Calder meet also features the $1.75 million Summit of Speed on July 12 and the $1 million Florida Million on Nov. 15. The $400,000 Grand Slam I (Dec. 13) and $600,000 Grand Slam II (Dec. 27) are highlights of the Tropical meet.

The Summit of Speed has fast become one of the premier attractions on the national racing calendar. Last summer, Breeders' Cup Sprint and Eclipse Award winner Orientate captured the Smile Sprint and Gold Mover upset 2001 champion 3-year-old filly Xtra Heat in the Princess Rooney Handicap.

This year, purses for both the Smile and Princess Rooney have been raised from $400,000 to $500,000. In addition, the purses for the Summit of Speed's two supporting stakes, the Carry Back and Azalea Breeders' Cup, have been raised from $250,000 to $300,000 apiece.

"All four races are now graded, which is a pretty big step for us," said Bob Umphrey, who begins his 10th season as Calder's racing secretary. "Of course our main focus again this summer will be developing 2-year-olds. As usual we lost a lot of our veteran horses through the claim box at Gulfstream but without that kind of turnover we would have no room to put away the 1,000 or so 2-year-olds who will pass through here during the summer. We might have lost a good deal of old winners but that only makes way for all the new winners we will turn out this season."

Racing will be conducted five days per week through mid-December, with nine races to be offered on Mondays and Tuesdays, 11 on Friday, 13 on Saturday, and 10 on Sunday.

Said Umphrey, "With stakes and Florida Breeders' awards we will start out with a distribution of about $215,000 per day."