How cold was it at Gulfstream Park in South Florida last weekend? So cold that local legend Hash Weinstein thought of wearing socks for the first time in his life. So cold the volleyballs at Frank's beach all were sadly deflated. It was so cold racing fans couldn't have cared less whether or not there were enough outdoor seats for them at the track that was once a winter paradise.
This was my first trip to Gulfstream Park since Magna Entertainment chairman Frank Stronach turned it into a multi-purpose facility: one with slot machines, an aquarium, upscale restaurants and a mostly empty shopping mall, the Village at Gulfstream Park, scheduled for a “grand opening” next month. There's currently a Crate and Barrel and The Container Store at the mall, so it's a good place to come if you need boxes.
Some Gulfstream Park employees are talking about the positive effect the Village will have on racing “if” it fills up and is successful—not when. It's a tough economic market, and MEC doesn't have the greatest track record in the retail world—much less the pari-mutuel one.
I've been to worse facilities than Gulfstream Park (and there really are some things to like about it), but never to a place that seemed so much in denial about being a racetrack. It was difficult to tell, for example, when pulling into the parking lot, exactly where the racetrack and grandstand (what there is of it) are located. Signs at the walk-in entrance failed to tell patrons where to go to see live racing, though there was plenty of help in finding Christine Lee's or the Ten Palms restaurants, the slots parlors or even the Silks Simulcast Center.
The walking ring is centrally located for future mall shoppers (“Hey, Mom, look…pony rides!) and even for racing fans, but anyone who wants to see the horses being saddled is out of luck. The saddling enclosure appears to be in an undisclosed location somewhere under the grandstand and out of sight.
I asked someone at Gulfstream where the horsemen generally hang out and was told “they mostly don't come here.” Someone else said “Tampa Bay Downs.” There are those few rows of seats in front of the glass-enclosed dining room where a couple hundred folks will sit on a warm day and enjoy the races without spending $32 on a buffet lunch or $16 on a cup of Lo Mein noodles from Christine Lee's (where you can see pictures of celebrities like Lucille Ball, Mel Brooks and Frank Stronach!), but they were empty on this 45-degree Sunday. There were more shivering mutuel clerks than fans outside braving the cold.
The slots parlor had that familiar ringy-ding-ding background noise that serves as a siren call to folks who like to throw coins into a “Wheel of Fortune” machine. There is a beautiful fish tank in the middle of one of the casino rooms, too, reminding you that you're in a tropical paradise. They even had a few television monitors showing the racing action just outside the room, along with simulcasts and an NFL playoff game, but when I asked someone where I could go to make a horse racing bet I got an empty shrug.
I searched the casino for a betting machine and finally found one—ONE!—off in the corner, literally hidden behind a curtain like the X-rated porn in a video store.
The simulcast room was fine, with rows and rows of TV-equipped cubicles, but I don't think I'd want to be in here on a nice warm day. Not nearly big enough. I'll try Frank's beach or the Jameson playground—both of which looked like deserted beaches on this day. At least you can see part of the racetrack from there.
I haven't read any official pari-mutuel handle figures since opening day, when they were down significantly from last year, but a very good source said the daily average has dropped nearly one-third from 2009. The combination of bad weather and unfriendly facilities hurts, but the biggest factor is the plunge in off-track bets due to an impasse involving the Mid-Atlantic racetrack cooperative and TrackNet Media, which negotiates simulcast contracts for MEC, Churchill Downs tracks and Oaklawn Park.
The new Gulfstream Park, complete with its Village mall, is not fully baked yet. The jury is still out as to whether the whole thing was a half-baked idea to begin with.
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