10/06/2014 12:31PM

Stronach opens first Gulfstream Park West meet

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Calder Race Course is now known as Gulfstream Park West.

MIAMI – An agreement reached this summer that allows the Stronach Group, owner of Gulfstream Park, to lease the Churchill Downs Inc.-owned Calder Race Course put an end to the bitter head-to-head conflict between the two tracks that plagued the south Florida circuit for a year. Now named “Gulfstream Park West,” the Miami racetrack opens its first meet under the Stronach Group on Wednesday.

Dubbed the “Fall Turf Festival,” the 40-day session will continue through Nov. 30, with racing Wednesdays through Mondays most weeks.

The meet will feature 23 stakes worth more than $1.7 million in total, including two longtime fixtures at Calder, the Tropical Turf Handicap and the My Charmer. Both races are Grade 3, $100,000 events and will be decided Nov. 22. The $600,000 Sunshine Millions Preview Day, which comprises eight $75,000 stakes for Florida-breds, will be held Nov. 8.

The Stronach Group has leased the track and a portion of the barn area for the next six years.

“We have put a significant investment into our own property with the idea of expanding the calendar,” said Tim Ritvo, president of Gulfstream Park. “But obviously we knew we couldn’t make that profitable running head-to-head with Calder since it meant splitting the available handle as well as reduced field sizes. That was the main impetus behind making the deal with Churchill Downs. When the opportunity arose, we seized it, and it’s already proven to be beneficial, not only to Gulfstream Park but the entire Florida racing industry.”

Ritvo said taking a break from the year-round racing schedule at Gulfstream while moving live racing on the circuit eight miles west for the next eight weeks will prove to be a plus for several reasons.

“This gives us a chance to freshen up our turf course while also breaking up the dates on the circuit,” Ritvo said. “Opening at a different venue brings the excitement of having a new place for our fans to play for the next two months before we return and kick off the championship meet with a real bang on Dec. 6 with the Claiming Crown.”

Ritvo said Gulfstream Park averaged 9.2 starters per race from July 1 through the end of its meet Saturday.

“With the New Jersey horses starting to ship in and the Kentucky and New York horsemen not far behind, I look for that trend to continue throughout this meet,” he said. “We’re hoping to double the business they did at Calder during the conflict last fall. Anything over that would be a bonus.”

Ritvo said purses on the south Florida circuit figure to increase by $9 million to $10 million over last year due to the agreement between the two tracks.

“Purses ran around $63 [million] to $64 million between Calder and Gulfstream last year and are estimated to be about $72 million over the coming year,” said Ritvo. “And we expect to be able to increase that number as time goes on.”

The Stronach Group has made a significant investment in renovating Gulfstream Park West, especially the barn area. Many of the horsemen there have raced out of the same barn area for three decades or longer. Bill White has won 15 training titles at Calder and has been training in south Florida for almost 30 years. He said: “The barn area now has a freshness about it that was lacking previously. I came here in 1986, and I was glad when I learned Gulfstream was taking over. I’m very excited, and I think a lot of other people are excited about having new blood in here, putting some money in, some fresh ideas, and trying to get this thing turned around. And when owners out there see that racing in south Florida is improving, it’s going to create the opportunity for new owners and new horses to come down here, which, as a trainer, is good for all of us.”

The opening-day feature is a 6 1/2-furlong optional-claiming dash for fillies and mares that carries a $40,000 purse. The field is led by the stakes-placed pair of Yes Liz and Quinnkat, along with Royal Rhiannon.