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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