Frank Stronach is a visionary. He doesnâ€™t think outside the box. He refuses to acknowledge there is a box. His visions are always on a grand scale. Alas, sometimes too grand.
Occasionally, he needs to be reined in. This happened at Santa Anita, where one of his schemes involved demolishing the downhill turf chute, one of the most unique and picturesque courses in the world. Thankfully, he allowed himself to be talked out of that.
The same needs to happen with parts of Stronachâ€™s ambitious plans for Gulfstream, the key element of which is year-round racing. This could amount to shooting himself and South Florida racing in the foot.
Stronachâ€™s long-held dream has been to morph race tracks into one-stop destinations for entertainment and commerce. Itâ€™s not far removed from the fabulously successful transition Las Vegas made from no frills hotel-casinos to mega resorts with world class restaurants and high end shopping malls.
Under the right circumstances, this might be the way of the future. However, not every brainstorm winds up a home run. New Coke, Facebookâ€™s IPO and Tim Tebow as a New York Jet all struck extraordinarily successful people as potential grandslams.
Stronach has not sufficiently thought through the Gulfstream expansion plan. The Village, the mall surrounding the track, is the equivalent of a bounce house across the street from Disney World. Gulfstream and The Village are located down the block from the glamorous Aventura Mall. The Village is an outdoor, strip-style mall. Aventura is enclosed and air-conditioned. Ever been to South Florida during the endless summer?
Predictably, The Village is a lonely place outside racing season, when Gulfstream serves as a magnet. Two popular bars adjacent to the trackâ€™s walking ring went toes up during the break between the end of racing last April and the reopening in December.
Year-round racing is sending good money after bad, an attempt to rescue the mall, without consideration of the ramifications for racing.
Calder has been running the summer dates since it opened 40 years ago. If not for Calder, there would be no summer racing. Nevertheless, Stronach apparently feels Calder should step aside for him. To be fair, itâ€™s not as if Stronach isnâ€™t leaving anything for Calder. Gulfstreamâ€™s plan calls for summer racing only on Saturday and Sunday. Calder can have weekdays, if it likes.
Itâ€™s inconceivable that Calderâ€™s parent, Churchill Downs, Inc., will lie down without a fight. (Then again, it was inconceivable that Calder would roll over for Gulfstreamâ€™s incursion into December.) The alternative is the two tracks going head to head for customers and horses. Itâ€™s debatable which is in shorter supply during the summer.
There is no chance either track can make a go of it under these circumstances. There is every chance both will have to throw in the towel. Itâ€™s a matter of conjecture what happens then to South Florida racing outside the winter tourist season?
Even the prime dates could suffer. Consider the most successful meets in America: Keeneland, Saratoga, Del Mar. Their common denominator is relatively short meetings that give them the aura of an event. Winter racing at Gulfstream isnâ€™t far removed from this. Racing year-round, the event transforms into monotony.
Stronach also is addressing another repercussion of The Village in a grand manner without thinking things through. To make room for The Village, the old Gulfstream, one of the most comfortable, fan-friendly facilities in the sport, had to be bulldozed. In its place is a building designed to accommodate a casino, a massive simulcast room, several classy restaurants and a grand showroom, which recently hosted the Eclipse Awards.
The only thing itâ€™s not ideal for is fans interested in actually watching races via binoculars, not flat screens. There are little more than 1,000 seats facing the race track. Among other things, this meant the Breedersâ€™ Cup would never return.
Stronachâ€™s solution is characteristically grandiose and typically short-sighted. He says he plans to flank the current building with extended grandstands and two luxurious hotels, which will afford a direct view of the race track to more than 50,000 fans. He must never have been to Belmont on any day a Triple Crown isnâ€™t on the line.
Hialeah president John Brunetti, whose family fortune comes from the construction business, said he has seen Gulfstreamâ€™s plans and dismisses them as just big talk. â€śFor Frank to do everything he wants, heâ€™d have to build up to Dania (about five miles to the north).â€ť
Caught in the middle, as usual, are the horsemen, who could be herded into one of those â€śWhat were we thinking?â€ť decisions. Gulfstream is making the argument that it will handle more than Calder, and thus offer better purses during the summer, because it handles more now. Of course, it does. Put Calder in January and February and Gulfstream in July and August and the outcome could be vastly different.
Many South Florida horsemen have it in for Calder, especially under the Churchill Downs regime, for what they regard as a heavy-handed, take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward them, exemplified by charging backstretch personnel rent for subpar living quarters. Their yen to cut Calder down to size could cloud their thinking into throwing away a historically dependable racing home for what can fairly be described as an experiment at Gulfstream.
Gulfstreamâ€™s casino is open year-round now. It hasnâ€™t helped The Village. Itâ€™s folly to think a couple of days a week of sub-par racing will turn things around for the mall. But Stronach seems hell bent to do it anyway.
Part II Monday: Brunetti, Waiting in the Wings