by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

By Ray Paulick

In an earlier Paulick Report visit to Gulfstream Park in January, temperatures were in the 40s, the track and casino were mostly empty, and the Village at Gulfstream Park shopping mall was a ghost town, with only a couple of stores having opened.

Well, two months later, a lot has changed.

On Saturday, under glorious sunny skies, Gulfstream was almost coming apart at the seams with a bustling racetrack crowd estimated at 14,414. (How does one estimate such a precise number? More on that later.) Every seat in the place was sold out, despite premium pricing in the Silks simulcast center, outdoor seating and in the dining rooms. Picnic tables and benches in the north and south “beach” areas were scooped up early. The apron was packed with enthusiastic fans. Betting, food and beverage lines were long, parking and traffic flow, well organized on the north end of the track, was chaotic on the south end. Not enough programs were printed and late arrivals were unable to purchase one.

Yet, as I wandered throughout the plant with a racing newcomer, my veterinarian brother who was visiting from California, I heard no complaints.

Gulfstream Park was, once again, the place to be on Florida Derby day.

Most of the slot machines in the Gulfstream casino were humming, many of the previously vacant spaces in the recently completed Village Mall were filling up with bars, restaurants, boutiques and retail shops, with more on the way. The concept of a racetrack/casino/shopping and entertainment center, one that I described as half-baked back in January, might just work after all.

Earlier in the day, we stopped by the former Calder Race Course (renamed Calder Casino), to take a look at how parent Churchill Downs planned to mix horse racing with its newfound slot machines and poker rooms. Unlike Gulfstream, which built a mixed-use grandstand with different rooms for slots players, racing and simulcast bettors, and upscale restaurants, Calder chose to erect a separate building for its slots parlor. There is a covered walkway from the casino to the racetrack, which has not had any upgrades other than a low-rent poker room on the ground floor. Calder's simulcast area was typical of many racetracks–rows of uncomfortable chairs and cheap desks in front of a bank of television monitors. The floor was littered with tickets and trash, in contrast to the immaculate Calder Casino a furlong away.

After we arrived at Gulfstream and worked our way around the different parts of the track and casino, I asked my brother to compare the two racing and gaming venues. “Who would want to go to that other place?” he said of Calder. “It's sleazy.”

I explained that Calder was more of an old-school racetrack, with plenty of seats (most of which are empty all the time) and that Gulfstream was trying to integrate different forms of entertainment in one area. He also understood, of course, that Calder is lot more active when there's live racing taking place. He still said he would much prefer Gulfstream because it had more options to occupy his time and because of the far superior ambiance.

Gulfstream Park still has a ways to go to reclaim its past glory as a racing operation because many of its regular patrons, including horsemen, were alienated when Magna Entertainment chairman Frank Stronach tore down the old grandstand and built the new one. It was a long and painful construction process, and still has its share of problems, foremost among them being the lack of permanent seats to watch live racing. Ken Dunn, the longtime executive at Calder who was named Gulfstream Park president and general manager last November, understands those concerns. Dunn hopes he can convince the new owners of the track, MI Developments (which, like the bankrupt Magna Entertainment is controlled by Stronach), to make additional investments so Gulfstream can do a better job taking care of its racing customers.

“We need another 2,000-3,000 seats,” Dunn told the Paulick Report on Sunday, the day after the Florida Derby. “We are missing seats in front of the action.”

Dunn said his top priority will be to “continue to put together a racing program that will take a bigger piece of the wagering pie that's out there.” He said he will continue to tweak the stakes program and believes the decision to move the Florida Derby back one week—six weeks before the Kentucky Derby instead of five—was the right one. “There was a lot of second guessing when we made the change,” he said, “but this year we had no competition on the calendar anywhere in the country. It was a big day for us.”

Total handle on Florida Derby day was $21 million, an increase of 14% overall and 24% on-track.

The date change may or may not have prompted Grade 2 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth winner Eskendereya to forego the Florida Derby at the last minute and point instead for the April 3 Wood Memorial  at Aqueduct. With the loss of Eskendereya, the Florida Derby came up particularly weak this year. Of the 11 starters, there were two stakes winners, two-time Grade 3 winner Rule and European Group 2 winner Radiohead. Two starters, including longshot winner Ice Box, had won an entry-level allowance race, and seven had never won more than a maiden race.

By contrast, the previous weekend's Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park drew three Grade 1 winners.

Dunn, like owners and breeders throughout Florida, is hoping Florida legislators this session will approve a 15% tax cut on slot machines from 50% to 35%, a move that will significantly improve purses. “I've tried to explain to people that it's like the New York Yankees,” Dunn said. “If you can put up more money, you're going to buy greater talent and increase the quality and the competition of racing.”

Cross-promotions with the retail tenants of the Village at Gulfstream Park is another area of opportunity that Dunn sees for the racetrack and casino, along with creative new uses for the facility during the off-season. The directory for the mall lists more than 55 businesses that have moved in or are committed to leasing space. Every one of the businesses will be a short walk to the track and casino.

There are a lot of areas where I do not agree with Frank Stronach, but he has put an experienced and knowledgeable racing executive in charge of Gulfstream Park, and for that I applaud him. I hope Dunn is given the support and the opportunity to refocus the track's efforts on horse racing, because the industry needs a strong Gulfstream Park. I am confident if given the chance, he will get the job done.

“We had a great day yesterday,” Dunn said. “I wish we had a greater opportunity to handle the crowd that was there, but there are limitations. I hope I can convince the new owners to invest more money in helping us do more.”

Now about that crowd count of 14,414. With free parking and free admission and multiple entrances without turnstiles, there is no way of knowing how many people attended. The mutuels department estimated the number using on-track handle and a projected per capita wagered; it's the same formula used the last several years. Dunn said it did not include people in the Village bars, restaurants and shops or those in the casino.

I think the estimate was low, because so many of those in the apron area where I spent most of the day didn't even try to make wagers because the lines were so long and the available mutuel windows so few. It was an exceptional day—far from perfect—but the kind of afternoon Gulfstream Park and horse racing needed.

Copyright © 2010, The Paulick Report

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  • Lexington

    Sounds like Gulfstream should have some “roving” mutual clerks on its big days. Keeneland has done this successfully, where many people place their wagers with a live clerk without leaving their grandstand seats. I mention Keeneland once again, because it is a track that has done so many things right, including its careful attention to providing a marvellous ambiance. As your article notes, ambiance has much to do with customer satisfaction. Sounds like Gulfstream is paying attention and making good strides.

  • stanley


    i don’t understand why track executives don’t care about on-site attendance figures. what gives?

  • Jeremy Jet

    Ray –

    That really was an absurdly sunny “analysis”, and it is quite surprising that you, as an insider, would fall into the following traps.

    First, with regards to the physical plant, it’s not just the ridiculous lack of seating that plagues Gulfstream, but the transformation of what was a fine paddock at the original track, serving as a focal point and meeting place for snowbirds and hard-core racing fans alike, to a cramped, Las Vegas style circus ring that is both poorly designed for horses and people. Do you imagine that Stronach understands that, or would spend the money to undue the damage even if it were feasible?

    It will never come close to regaining its past glory. Period.

    With regards to the “big” crowd and handle, etc., if Gulfstream understated the crowd, it will have been the very first time in history that a U.S. track will have erred on the conservative side! More to the point, though, it was a jarringly anomalous card, in that it was a very good card start to finish. That is what drew the crowd – in spite of the off-putting nature of the track itself. The point that you really should have stressed here is that depth of quality sells, which is why Monmouth is likely to do so well this season.

    Fancy restaurants, shops, and casinos will never play a significant role in rejuvenating racing in the U.S. High-quality, undiluted racing will, if other tracks follow Monmouth’s lead.

  • YourHost

    I was there Thursday. Seriously, what is Stronach thinking? Does he expect the crowd to migrate from the track to the restaurants and bistros after the races are over? Maybe, but not the Thursday crowd. I would have attended on Florida Derby Day but the $400-600 for a table for four in the dining area was a factor in my decision. And they ran out of programs? Why? Anyway, I’ll stick with Tampa Bay Downs.

  • I think Ray’s report was right on target. Especially seeing it from his brother’s point of view. I love the new Gulfstream. It’s now a place that women, couple’s and families can go and have a great, entertaining and diverse day.

    Yes, they need more seating and yes it needs to be easier to find a betting window, but the ambiance, attractive architecture, and cleanliness of the place is far more appealing than the older tracks with trash all over the floor and a crowd that looks like it escaped prison.

    I wrote a letter to Ray when he was still editor of the Blood Horse, saying as a woman, I loved the new Gulfstream. For some reason Ray edited out my exuberant comments about how clean and pretty the rest rooms are. But you guys need to understand, women bet, and women will show up at this site. It’s beautiful. Um, and we can go shopping . . .


    Ken Dunn is an outstanding addition to Gulfstream Park….It was an exciting day of racing at Gulfstream…How did the State of Florida ever approve the construction plans of
    a racetrack that had seating for less than 1,100 fans? You did not give proper coverage to the ‘disaster’ in the south parking lot… There were no officials directing the flow of traffic…We were ‘at risk’ for a potential emergency– with vehicles going in every direction…How did Gulfstream not plan for this– in advance!!

  • John Merriweather

    Re: “Roving mutuel clerks” – I was at the Red Mile harness oval last summer and, with barely 1,000 fans in attendance, they had roving clerks, which my guests thought were great. We sat out on the apron, didn’t have to go far to make our bets, and enjoyed the harness action and hospitality. If the Red Mile can do this, certainly Gulfstream can.

    And even though Gulfstream had a nice crowd on Fla. Derby day, it still makes me shake my head at the thought of ‘ole Frank tearing down that lovely open-air grandstand and erecting his gawdy entertainment complex in its stead. The end of an era in Florida racing, never again to be seen, that’s for sure.

  • Dan C

    With a statewide population of 18 million, only 14,000 showed up for racing Saturday..

    I remember watching Royal Glint win the Santa Anita Derby decades ago. The attendance that day was around 80,000.

    The glory days seem permanently gone.

  • CanbuymeloveJessJackson

    Ken Dunn and his Director of Marketing Mike Cronin “get it”. We need more guys like them in horse racing….no more “casino people” running racing.

  • East Coast

    Just a quick note. Gulfstream has had roving clerks for many years.

    At first I hated the changes to Gulfstream. having raced there for many years.

    But the crowd is younger, larger and spending more overall dollars. As a horseman it was hard to adjust to the fact that we no longer the primary attraction.

    It’s that way at Delaware, Philadelphia and everywhere in between.

    The reality is that we are the conduit to the casino and should realize that the income is helping our purses.

    It’s a new day…gone are tracks like Atlantic City, Rockingham and the like. It’s a new world and we have to live in it…we certainly haven’t done a great job creating a new one.

  • Jack Meyoff

    Is there any other major racetrack that doesn’t have a box section? Trainers watch their horses ron from stairways, what was this guy thinking?

  • I can understand the appeal. It’s clean, which alone distinguished it from, say, Aqueduct. And there are lots of places for young sophisticates, or what passes for that in the cultural wasteland of Florida, to buy drinks, listen to music and hang out. But those of us who used to spend a significant part of the winter out back at the old Gulfstream, near the paddock, will probably never be reconciled to the new place.

    As for Ken Dunn, Mike Cronin and the expansion plans, well, Stronach doesn’t exactly have a record of recognizing and holding on to good executives. Quite the opposite. I hope they both have good severance deals locked in, because, probably sooner than later, Frank will find a way to get rid of them. And expecting MI Developments to come up with new money to invest in the track, which would be over the outraged screams of MI Developments’ minority shareholders, is far from a sure thing.

  • Ray – I think you went overboard on this. To have only 14,000 people attend their signature event of the year seems pretty dismal. Most days, very few people attend the actual races
    except for those connected to the runners. Racing at GP has been relegated to a minor outdoor activity for those who might want to step out for a smoke. The long range future of racing is doomed unless young people are attracted to it as an outdoor sport and not as a side effect of an indoor casino experience.

  • FourCats

    It sounds like Gulfstream at least recognizes that clean and pleasant surroundings are very important. I believe, sadly, that many tracks do not recognize or care that people will not return if everything is dirty, poorly-maintained and feels like you just walked into a slum. I know my wife feels this way.

  • Why has it taken Ray Paulick’s brother this long to become a horse racing fan?

    What with him being a veterinarian and all. :D

  • J in NJ

    I agree with #5 and can’t believe that so few people have mentioned how female friendly the track is. It’s clean, it has beautiful architecture, that lovely walking circle and now a mall. A man can bring a woman there on a date and the younger generation can go there and feel comfortable. Maybe when designing it, they were thinking of attracting some new people to the sport. Because sooner or later all those old hardened fans and snowbirds, well, you know……

  • Cris

    Maybe the stores are there because when you hit a race for a good price you might just want to go shopping! If you buy a thing or two there before you leave the track, the track has made a few more dollars off you without gambling. Women do this and some men do too.
    Especially if your from out of state.

  • race

    Giminee Christmas People, the Old Gulfstream is gone, get over it!!–I too was put off at first, remembering the good old day’s goint to the track with my Dad at Gulfstream and Hialeah, but hey, you are not going to get 30,000 people today. I have learned to like the ambiance with a smaller track. It was necessary to make the Track smaller to have that “special” feeling. My wife and I go up stairs (3rd floor), and get a spot to look down on the paddock. Last year I saw Quality Road and Dunkirk, and I was like a ittle kid all over again. My wife and I and friends have enjoyed this meeting emmensely, why?–The Horses!!–Good Cards bring the Horseplayer, not only for us gamblers, but for us to have the opportunity to educate those not familiar with Horse Racing that they are watching some of the best Horses in the World racing–enjoy people, relax and enjoy–Believe me I still think of my Dad every time I go, it’s changed yes, but lets support what we have—r

  • Don Reed

    “14,414” sardines, in a can designed to hold only 800.

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