Gulfstream's new look gets mixed reviews

Efforts to lure fans received differently

Horse Racing

March 19, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Although the Florida Derby played its traditional role last weekend in the buildup to the Kentucky Derby, tension blended with excitement at Gulfstream Park.

The South Florida complex welcomed thousands of concert-goers as well as race fans. Between Styx's performance on stage and that of Harlan's Holiday down the stretch, the latest trend in racetrack management unfolded to the distress of some and the delight of others.

Frank Stronach's Magna Entertainment Corp., a spin-off of his Canada-based automotive-parts-manufacturing empire, purchased Gulfstream in September 1999. With the ownership change came a new philosophy - "the total entertainment experience," with a goal of introducing new fans to racing.

Magna owns 10 racetracks besides Gulfstream, which together account for 26 percent of money bet on horse racing in this country. Two weeks ago, it bought Lone Star Park in Texas, and Suffolk Downs near Boston may be next.

Sources in the racing industry say that Magna is negotiating with Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, to buy Pimlico and Laurel Park. Neither side will comment on discussions.

Jim McAlpine, president of MEC, said after buying Lone Star that Magna is looking at three or four more tracks to add to its coast-to-coast conglomerate.

One trainer at Gulfstream, well-known at tracks throughout the Northeast including his native Maryland, graded Magna on its management of Gulfstream, one of the premier horse tracks in the country. The grade: failing.

"Magna walked in this place, and it had world-class racing," said the trainer, who asked that his name not be used in fear of being denied stalls at Magna tracks. After three years, he continued, "the perception of quality has been lost."

In interviews last weekend, many trainers at Gulfstream criticized the multifaceted entertainment concept and also complained about routine maintenance such as delays in manure disposal.

However, talks with people waiting for Saturday's concert, featuring Loverboy and Styx, produced a different tune.

"It's fun," said Leonard Stone, 21, who attended the concert with Stephanie Puthoff, 25, a dolphin trainer at the Miami Seaquarium.

Stone and Puthoff, both from Miami, went to the Bryan Adams concert in early January, bet a few races and won some money. They came back for Saturday's performances, which took place before and after the running of the Florida Derby. The two planned on betting about $20 over the course of the outing.

Told of Magna's strategy of luring young people to concerts and turning them into racing fans, Stone said: "It's working on us."

Rob Nevins, 42, an air-conditioner salesman from nearby Davie, said that he has attended about 25 concerts at Gulfstream in the past four years with his children, Preston, 14, and Katelyn, 10. Before the concerts he had been to a horse track once, and now, he said, he bets about $100 each time he comes.

Magna and Churchill Downs, which owns nearby Calder Race Course, combined to claim all of the racing dates and force the closure of Hialeah Park and its 1,200 stalls. One result has been a horse shortage at Gulfstream, a 10 percent reduction in field size and a 10 percent drop in handle - money bet on Gulfstream's races - amounting to nearly $1 million a day. Calder will open in late April after Gulfstream closes.

Despite the horse shortage, Gulfstream continued running six days a week and carding as many as 13 races a day. This week, it finally cut back to five days a week, a schedule it plans to maintain until closing April 24. Gulfstream opened this meet Jan. 3.

Conditions have changed

Horsemen and track management - any track management - relate as associates but also as antagonists in a sort of union vs. management faceoff. Criticism of management by horsemen is hardly surprising.

But any visitor to Gulfstream Park's stable can see trash littering the ground and shabby hedges, whereas grounds were once pristine and the hedges trimmed. Trainers say that manure and straw bedding, hauled off every few days in the past, sometimes sit uncollected, bins overflowing, for as long as a week.

Trainers say that security on the backstretch has been lax and that maintenance of the racing surface has deteriorated under Magna. But mainly they criticize what they see as Magna's neglecting racing while overemphasizing concerts, restaurants and shops and its short history of unveiling elaborate plans and not completing them.

Scott Savin, the 41-year-old president of Gulfstream Park, takes issue with nearly every criticism, but especially that of the weekend concerts at a pavilion close enough to the paddock that horses pin their ears at the amplified music and occasionally become agitated.

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