07/10/2008 11:00PM

Sunny days again in Florida


MIAMI - What a difference a purse contract makes.

The morale of local horsemen and horseplayers alike has improved immeasurably since the Florida Division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and Churchill Downs Inc. finally settled their differences and agreed on a purse contract earlier this week. The pact not only allowed Calder to finally begin sending its simulcast signal outside Florida for the first time since the meet opened on April 21, but also returned purses to a more suitable level after they were slashed 30 percent since the first week of the session.

"You can certainly see a change here in the racing office," said racing secretary Mike Anifantis. "Signing the purse contract took a weight off everybody's shoulder, and you could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from all our horsemen and employees once the contract was signed. People are actually smiling again around here these days."

Anifantis said he could already see the effect the raise in purses has had on his entries when he was able to fill three races for 2-year-old maidens on Saturday's Summit of Speed card.

"I think you'll really see the maiden special weights and higher-priced 2-year-old maiden claiming races start to go more regularly," said Anifantis. "I think some owners and trainers were kind of holding back and waiting to see what happened because they didn't want to lose their maiden condition for the kind of purse that was being offered prior to this week."

Purses for maiden special weight races rose from $21,000 to $27,000 since the purse contract was signed, while second-level allowance races have been elevated from $19,600 to $27,000.

"The same situation holds true for our allowance races, since guys didn't want to blow a condition for a $19,000 purse and even less money for non-Florida-breds," said Anifantis. "I tried to help them in a few spots, writing races with a $100,000 optional claiming clause, but I expect the allowance races to fill a lot better from here on in."

Horseplayers also noted a significant change in the wagering pools beginning Thursday when the local simulcast signal was finally beamed outside Florida for the first time during the 2008 Calder session. For instance, the combined win-place-show and exacta handles on Thursday's third race were $63,776 and $78,666, respectively. The same pools on the corresponding Thursday two weeks earlier, when the signal was restricted to Florida, were $19,712 and $23,752. Comparable increases of better than 200 percent pretty much held up for every race during Thursday's nine-race card.

"Now I can finally start betting the Calder races again," said one local high roller who wished to remain anonymous. "Up until Thursday I couldn't bet here because the pools were so small that with my kind of action I'd basically wind up betting against myself and be cutting into my own payoffs if I won."

Cruz serves weekend suspension

Manoel Cruz regained the lead in the jockey standings while apprentice Paco Lopez has been sidelined the past two weeks serving out several riding suspensions. But Cruz will will see his advantage shrink by the time he gets back to action Monday after he serves a three-day suspension of his own this weekend.

Cruz held a 57-47 advantage over Lopez entering Friday's program, with Javier Santiago closing steadily on the top pair with 44 wins through the opening 47 days of the meet.