Consequently one might surmise that the atmosphere these days at Gulfstream Park must be a corporate coupling of 1) doom, and 1A) gloom. But that‘s not the reality here.
Morale is better than I have seen it in the years since the “new” Gulfstream opened in 2006. That’s because this meet’s been a success even if some 50-1 shot makes a Grade 1 joke of Saturday’s Florida Derby.
And it’s because they’re writing the business story of Gulfstream 2009 in black ink.
With help from Mother Nature, Gulfstream has been bucking all the national trends. On-track handle is up 7 percent and all-sources is higher by almost 4. With good weather projected for Saturday, those numbers could increase.
Signature races are no guarantor of box office success Despite good weather that produced an attendance rise of 4 percent, on-track handle at Turfway Park’s Lanes End program was down seven percent. All-sources handle on 12 races was down an alarming 26 percent.
So it wasn’t surprising when Gulfstream Park President and General Manager Bill Murphy had spring in his step when he walked into the track kitchen. Murphy was on his way to a weekly meeting management conducts with the horsemen every Wednesday morning.
“Everybody’s happy with it,” Murphy said. “I think it’s really helped.”
At 58, Murphy been a racetracker for 45 years, getting baptized as a hot walker at Washington Park in his native Chicago at the ripe age of 13. He’s pretty much done it all ever since.
The Vietnam vet was track superintendent at Hialeah, the general manager at Thistledown in Cleveland. He dresses with casual Friday style and carries his work to and from home in a backpack. He doesn’t look like he’d be happy doing anything else.
Turning the Fountain of Youth back to a one-turn mile is an obvious example of how common sense decisions can prove popular at the entry box and at the wickets. Rocket science this ain’t.
Two of the three Florida Derby favorites, Quality Road and Theregoesjojo, comprised the Fountain of Youth exacta.
Gulfstream is doing well in other areas, too. Poker room business is up, out-handling the slots. Slots business is healthier than it’s been in recent years.
Credit management for bringing in a new slots manager, Steve Calabro, who recognized that the machines in use were not well suited to Gulfstream’s needs. At the time they were considered the worst in the market.
Calabro must have found the right mix. Slots business is up 10 percent over last year while Gulfstream’s two major competitors, Mardi Gras Race Track and Gaming, the greyhound track, and Isle Racing and Casino at Pompano Park harness, are down 14 and 25 percent, respectively.
But racing remains Gulfstream‘s core business. “It bothers me when people say Frank [Stronach] cares more about casinos than racing. He’s heard the criticisms and he‘s responded. People wanted more outside seating; that’s the reason for the Tiki Bar.
“Next year more seats will be added. We’re increasing the existing seating area by extending the traditional box area outward over the apron.
“Between the living quarters for backstretch workers with air conditioning and terraces and Palm Meadows, it’s been state of the art all the way. And he’s leading owner or leading breeder every year.”
Chances are the trend will continue in 2010. “In our first year, slots revenues didn’t meet unrealistic projections and purses were overpaid in 2007. [Consequently] 2008 was a correction year. Because we’ve done well this year, our payments are down which means purses will be increased in 2010.”
For horsemen and the track, it’s all about purses, of course. Purses were underpaid last year; quality suffered. Wags were calling the meet “Calder at Gulfstream.” On balance, quality is back to Gulfstream standards and likely to be better in 2010.
And it’s not like racing is getting help from the state of Florida. Because of accords made with Native American tribes, the tracks have been placed in an untenable position long term..
“I don’t know how we compete with the Seminole Hard Rock when they pay no taxes, no purses, and are allowed to have table games.” According to Murphy, the effective tax rate for racetracks with slots is a blended 70 percent.
But legislative help might be on the way. On Tuesday a Florida Senate committee introduced legislation to allow blackjack and baccarat at Gulfstream and Calder, permitting the Seminole Tribe to keep those games, the payback being that the Seminoles also would get roulette and card tables.
Yesterday, a separate bill called for upgraded slot machines to be installed at existing pari-mutuel facilities in all other state counties. A third gaming bill would fix the tax rate at pari-mutuel venues getting upgraded slots at 35 percent while reducing taxes on existing machines at Gulfstream and Calder from 50 percent to 35.
Essentially, this is a Senate response to a pact made between Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe permitting blackjack and baccarat, forms of gambling not presently legal in Florida. The accord came with an upfront payment of $100 million from the Seminoles to the state.
Another House committee, meanwhile, is considering legislation that would replace the Crist-Seminole accord.
Taking it all in context, between the increased purses slated for 2010, the expected completion of the upscale shopping complex on the grounds, things suddenly are looking up for Gulfstream Park after its very rocky start.
What it will all mean after next month’s bankruptcy hearing is another matter entirely.