There has never been a shortage of searing heat in South Florida summers. At one time, though, sizzle was lacking. At least when it came to summer racing. No track understood that better at one time than Calder Race Course, which once held the summer dates for decades.
“It was kind of dead,” said former Calder Race Course president Ken Dunn. “We were isolated. We were racing with what we had. Nobody was shipping in to sweat.”
While the track enjoyed a strong reputation as a launching pad for future racing stars — from Kentucky Derby winners Spend A Buck and Lil E. Tee to divisional champions Smile and Princess Rooney — it lacked the kind of signature event that would bring it national recognition, one that would turn it into a drawing card for the country's top horses, trainers and jockeys.
That all changed in 2000 when Calder launched the “Summit of Speed,” a one-day program devoted exclusively to high-octane sprinters racing for eye-popping purses. It proved to be a stroke of genius, an instant hit that has endured to this day.
After the Summit of Speed was cancelled in 2014 while racing dates in South Florida were realigned, Gulfstream picked up the five stakes races and will once again host one of Florida's biggest days of summer racing Saturday featuring the $250,000 Breeders' Cup 'Win & You're In' Princess Rooney (G2) and $250,000 Smile Sprint (G3).
“It's become a big day for us,” said Gulfstream General Manager Bill Badgett. “Our program on Summit of Speed Day has been incredibly strong and the events surrounding it have only grown over the past five years. We're looking forward to a big day.”
The Summit of Speed was launched through the collective efforts of three of Calder's former officials: Dunn, head of marketing Mike Cronin, and its racing secretary, the late Bob Umphrey. Together, they brought national attention and respect to a “little old country track” that went largely unnoticed in the summer.
“It put us in the limelight,” said David Fawkes, whose horses have enjoyed success in the Summit of Speed.
Dunn said Calder officials had looked for a summer spark for years, something before the Florida Stallion Stakes (now FTBOA Florida Sire Stakes) in August and before northern trainers began shipping their horses south to spice up the fall and winter racing seasons.
“I wanted to do something to get a little interest at the beginning of the meet,” Dunn said.
They tried something called “June Jam,” a one-day program of stakes that met with mild success, but nothing on the grand scale South Florida officials were longing for.
“We started looking around the country and looked for a category that wasn't filled,” Dunn said.
In their quest to create a unique event, they ruled out races restricted to 3-year-olds (the Triple Crown erased that prospect) or turf specialists (the summer rainy season in South Florida made that a gamble). Major races already existed elsewhere for older, handicap horses.
Ultimately, they settled on sprinters. And to help pull it off, they gambled big, offering $1 million in total purses, an unthinkable amount of money for a track was that was accustomed to carding $50,000 weekend stakes during the summer.
Cronin came up with the name: Summit of Speed.
“We had a little bit of an issue initially convincing the local horsemen,” Dunn said. “We were taking all this money that they would have rather seen spread out in $50s and $75s,” Dunn said. “There was a battle, initially. But we convinced them that, ultimately, it would be to their benefit. Ultimately, it would be beneficial to them if we were successful.”
Recalled Fawkes: “I remember all the grumbling about the out-of-towners coming in for all that purse money. I would go to the HBPA (office) in the morning and some of the guys were disappointed. But, at the same time, it gave us an opportunity.”
Money alone, though, wasn't enough to convince national trainers to send their top horses all the way to South Florida — far off the beaten racing path in the summer months — for a crack at riches.
Because of its deep and tiring racing surface, Calder had to overcome its reputation as a track that put first-time runners — horses not used to such going — at a disadvantage. There was also the formidable obstacle of the shipping expense required to transport horses to Calder from distant points.
Calder waged an aggressive recruiting effort to convince out-of-town trainers that it was worth the effort. Umphrey and Dunn made pilgramages to California, New York and elsewhere to pitch their plan to horsemen in person. They also offered to pay shipping expenses.
D. Wayne Lukas was one trainer, among many, who had reservations after being approached.
“The one thing about it is they were offering big purses,” Lukas said. “They were very appealing. At the time, we didn't have a lot of pure sprint stakes to choose from. But the heat factor was a little bit of a concern.”
In the end, Calder succeeded. The horses and jockeys came. And they won. Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day rode two winners for trainer Bernie Flint — Hurricane Bertie and Swept Away — in the inaugural running on July 15, 2000, and the track set a one-day handle record.
Over time, Lukas, Bill Mott, Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Mark Hennig, Steve Asmussen and Dale Romans — among others — sent sprinters to Calder that landed in the winner's circle. Day, Jerry Bailey, Mike Smith, Russell Baze, Jorge Chavez, Edgar Prado, Kent Desormeaux and Corey Nakatani were among the host of nationally acclaimed jockeys who flew down to ride.
Local trainers, despite their initial reservations, also came out ahead. Dunn calculated that, at one time, more than 50 percent of all purse money that was awarded ended up going to horsemen stabled at Calder. This year, more South Florida-based trainers will compete in the Princess Rooney (G2) and Smile (G3) than ever before.
Summit winners such as Lost in the Fog, Orientate, Benny the Bull and Big Drama went on to capture the year-end Eclipse Award as the nation's champion sprinter.
Summit of Speed stakes were accorded Graded-stakes status — the best of the best — and the Princess Rooney has become a 'Win & You're In' Breeders' Cup event.
“Nobody, when we started this, would have ever thought there would be a (graded stakes) at Calder in the middle of the summer,” Dunn said. “We got national exposure. Even the first year, it did what we wanted it to do — generate some excitement when there wasn't any.”
And that continues 19 years later.
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