Upgrades come to Gulfstream, but racing is still main attraction

Gamble on slots pays off for track

April 29, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun reporter

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- The day after the March 31 Florida Derby, a sunny, 82-degree Sunday, Herb Kornspun had his family gathered along the rail for the start of the first race at Gulfstream Park.

"I'm a regular," said Kornspun, 82. "I don't usually come on the weekend, but my daughter and my two grandchildren are in from New York, and this was our one opportunity to come to the track. I wanted to show them where I hang out."

For many fans, Gulfstream has become a great place to "hang out."

The track is a bright, clean and friendly place, with a lot of young people in the crowd. Parents and grandparents with their families, such as the Kornspuns, and young families, such as Cathy and Ross Tanner, from London, who were pushing a stroller containing their 9-month-old daughter, Sophie.

"We're on holiday," Cathy Tanner said. "We're not really interested in the gambling. It just looked like a nice place to come, and we know the [Florida] Derby is a big race. We'll make a few bets on the horses, but mostly we'll just enjoy the scene and watching the horses run."

This is all quite different from the scenes at most older tracks where, unlike Gulfstream, slots have not been added to the menu of activities. And it is one of the unusual aspects of Gulfstream Park and perhaps its saving grace.

Like Maryland's Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, Gulfstream is owned by Magna Entertainment Corp. But the presence of slots encouraged Magna to pump in money here and remodel the plant.

When Gulfstream - which added slots Nov. 15 - opened its winter meet in January, attendance was up by about 3,000 people and the handle up by $150,000 over the 2006 winter opener. On the first Saturday of the winter meet, Gulfstream drew about 3,500 more fans and was up more than $200,000 in handle over the same day the year before. However, through April 1, average daily handle was about even with last year's meet, The Daily Racing Form reported. Still, purses were averaging 17 percent higher than 2006.

"It's very professional here," Kornspun said. "I don't play the slots. Look around - the atmosphere here is wonderful. It's a nice place to bring my family. The security is good. The restaurants are good. The food is good. The racing is good. Why wouldn't anyone like this?"

When Gulfstream was remodeled to build a slot machine emporium, racing did not get pushed into the background, as has happened at other tracks that have added slots.

Horses at forefront

Ask almost anyone who comes to this park, and he can tell you how to get to the racetrack to see live racing. And from the moment a person passes through the front gates, he or she is immediately aware of horses.

"Horse racing is the centerpiece here," said Bill Murphy, who became Gulfstream president and general manager in January. "Our chairman, Frank Stronach, has a vision, and when you come here, there is no doubt he cares about the horse industry.

"You walk up to our beautiful building, and the first thing you see is the walking ring, surrounded by rows of seats. There are big screens all over the place, so people can watch the races. Our dormitories are the best in the world for the people who take care of the animals.

"Frank has built a brand new racing surface and barn areas. He's been the leading owner and breeder in North America four of the last five years. For anyone to say all he cares about is slots simply defies logic here."

That's not to say some hard-core racing fans haven't been turned off by the changes.

They find the track's design less than congenial, pointing to limited outdoor seating along the frontstretch. Once one of the best frontstretch areas in the country for large numbers of fans to gather to watch a race, Gulfstream now seats about 900 in its grandstand. The true railbird is unimpressed with the pleasant terrace with iron tables and comfortable chairs for limited al fresco carryout dining.

During the Florida Derby, even owners and trainers chose to stand on a crowded staircase leading to the grandstand to watch their Kentucky Derby prospects run, rather than try to see the race from any other location.

But those coming for the first time and even some of those who are longtime visitors, like Kornspun, find little to complain about.

"I don't mind the changes," Kornspun said.

Murphy said he is encouraged by the younger crowds coming to Gulfstream this season.

"One reason has to be the facility," he said of the structure that includes a simulcasting room, two slots emporiums, a deli, a cafeteria and an upscale restaurant.

When the racing season ended, April 22, construction was set to begin on a retail development west of the main building that is expected to be completed in 2008. And, eventually, a condominium development will get under way.

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