Oklahoma and, for that matter, the legendary racetrack across the street looks the same, which is to say, just great. Unfortunately, training hours were over when I rolled up on the entrance, but the weekend’s coming and I can see a container of coffee and a stopwatch in my immediate future.
Of course, it’s good to be home. But I have another home now, too, South Florida. Call it my favorite spot on “The Snowbird Circuit.” It’s nice having a small piece of that rock, too, even if I only got to Lauderdale Beach twice in the past three months.
I like South Florida even if it is part of a state in which “justifiable homicide” is permitted and rigorously defended; where foreclosures run rampant, unemployment is higher than the national average and a place where any moron can call someone a communist because he or she sits in 70 or 71 or 80 seats across the aisle from theirs.
Looking back on a winter racing season recently past, it’s almost impossible to recall all the good things that took place between the fences near the corner of Biscayne and Hallandale Beach Boulevards.
The meet started with Discreet Dancer’s track record performance on opening day, the beginning of a meeting to remember for Todd Pletcher whose 72 winners gave him a ninth consecutive training title, a milestone 3,000th victory, his support allowing Javier Castellano to ride a record number of meet winners, 112, also joining the ranks of 3,000 win club.
Yes, the Pletcher shedrow is extremely powerful and deep, seemingly having a runner for every condition. But it’s one thing to enter the “best horse” and another to win with such consistency at the sport’s highest levels; Pletcher’s good horses aren’t beating up on a bunch of equine tomato cans.
It was a meet in which thrice-Kentucky Derby winning Calvin Borel left with his riding crop between his legs only to return and upset the consensus Kentucky Derby favorite in Gulfstream Park’s signature event, the Florida Derby, the linchpin of the best racing program seen in 2012.
The 2011-2012 Gulfstream Park race meet was a box office success as well. Horses such as Awesome Feather, the 2010 Juvenile Fillies champion, Mucho Macho Man, Awesome Maria and Hymn Book saw to that, especially Maria and the Macho Man.
But the best part is that the new Gulfstream Park—when does it just become Gulfstream Park, I wonder—is that it was reminiscent of the older venue, where on any given day, champion might show up in some mid-week allowance race.
Of course, given the calendar, it’s all about the three-year-olds, and there were plenty of those. Ten horses comprise the NTRA 3-yrear-old pole; half based in the East and the other half based in the West or Midwest.
All the Eastern based 3-year-olds were stabled in SoFla this weekend. Only Alpha didn’t race at Gulfstream Park, but Union Rags, Gemologist, Hansen and Take Charge Indy did. Might as well throw in Risen Star winner El Padrino, at the moment graded earnings challenged, and the sidelined Algorithms, a Holy Bull revelation.
The 2011 Eclipse Award female sprint champion Musical Romance returned to form in the Grade 2 Inside Information. Animal Kingdom returned to win an allowance race but was reinjured and 2011 Louisiana Derby winner Pants On Fire also returned an allowance winner. Preakness winning Shackleford also showed up, as did irrepressible Jackson Bend.
As you might expect, it was all very popular at the box office. The early December opening accounted for an addition $80 million in handle receipts, according to Gulfstream, with on-track handle going over the $50 million mark for the first time in the new facility, which opened in 2006.
In addition to the on-track numbers, all-sources handle set a new standard for the meet that included a record $26.7 million on Florida Derby day, $2.9 million of that on track. It’s easy to attract record handle given top-flight talent and an average field size of 9.25.
The Gulfstream betting menu leaves nothing to the imagination and the fairly friendly takeout rates in multi-race pools and the availability of incremental multi-race wagering, including 50-Cent trifectas and Dime Superfectas, pretty much standard everywhere these days, all helped.
The Dime Rainbow Pick 6 is successful by any fair measure even with its high takeout rates because it allows everyone into the pool. A 10-Cent Pick Six paying $1,800-plus personally insured a profitable meeting. But there is still work to be done.
While Gulfstream and Aqueduct worked hard to coordinate post times so as not to be in conflict, all too often on Saturdays, or so it seemed, Gulfstream post times conflicted with its sister track, Santa Anita.
Competition, not cooperation, with intrastate rival Tampa Bay Downs, was both obvious and a little distasteful. Horses for Gulfstream’s Saturday feature on March 10 seem to lollygag for an exceptionally long time near the starting gate, insuring that Gulfstream’s feature would conflict with the Tampa Bay Derby.
Additionally, on self-service betting machines, where the more popular simulcast signals often share a space on the same line with the host track, with secondary track relegated to the “More Tracks” button, are routine.
But self-service bettors had to go three deep to find Tampa Bay Downs, which certainly qualified as a featured signal that afternoon given its strong supporting stakes program. Away from the press box, I had some difficulty finding a monitor that carried Tampa Bay.
Gulfstream Park is a class operation from top to bottom, but this tack is bush league and beneath the stature of the best winter signal in the country, bar none. But there’s another element about Gulfstream that, for all its New Millennium design, is reminiscent of my other home track.
I like to watch the races from a television viewing stand directly behind the winners’ circle and opposite the finish line. The stand is about 10 feet high, providing an unobstructed view of the action as you stand watching that day’s feature race in the crowd.
Like Saratoga, Gulfstream’s fans like up five deep at the rail to get a closer look at the horses and feel the energy as the field races toward the finish. People on a racetrack apron straining, up on their toes, to get a better look.
People at the racetrack. What a concept.