Its 67th meeting concluded Thursday.
“Our thanks go to the horsemen and the jockeys, and mostly to our guests and our employees for a sensational meeting,” said Gulfstream Park President and General Manager Bill Murphy. “We were lucky with the weather, no doubt about that, but you have the strong sense that our longtime guests have regained their familiarity and comfort level with the property.”
“Racing five days a week led to an automatic increase in field size, and bigger fields attract interest and lead to higher handle,” he said.
“We also made great strides in bringing in a younger crowd, due in large part to the revitalization of the Jameson Jockey Club as well as a recession-proof marketing campaign that accentuated value for the entertainment and the food-and-beverage dollar.”
Stable owners, trainers and jockeys – those based in Florida and those who head back north as the weather warms – agreed that the 2009 meeting was something special.
“It was great to see the large crowds here every day,” said Sam Gordon, President of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective association. “The staff at Gulfstream Park deserves a lot of credit for the show they put on.”
Trainer Terri Pompay said, “The racing was really great this year … the best of the last few years. The crowds were great, not only on big days, but even on regular weekends. It was exciting. It feels great as a trainer to walk by and hear people talk and ask questions as they learn the game. The ($1) hot dogs and beer got them here, but they were getting into racing and they were learning.”
Overall handle for the 79-day meet, which opened Jan. 3, came in at $660,745,153, an increase of 3.69% from last year’s $637,202,590 total, conducted over 87 racing days. On-track handle for 2009 was $42,270,739, a 6.71% increase of last year’s $39,613,200 total.
Admission is free at Gulfstream Park, leaving attendance an estimation: for 2009 it was estimated at 317,782, an increase of 8.49% over last year’s estimate of 292,918.
Business was superb on Gulfstream Park’s Big Four racedays – which consists of the Sunshine Millions, Donn Handicap, Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby – the one hiccup coming Florida Derby Day when the day’s first race was delayed 15 minutes due to minor mishaps as the horses prepared for the start. The delay was felt throughout the day as post times were compressed the remainder of the card, thereby cutting short the amount of time available to make wagers.
Jan. 24 Sunshine Millions Day On-Track 2009 $1,449,863 2008 $1,319,197 + 9.90%
Overall 2009 $13,602,677 2008 $12,368,226 + 9.98%
Jan. 31 Donn Handicap On-Track 2009 $1,254,814 2008 $1,039,172 +20.75%
Overall 2009 $13,816,476 2008 $12,063,021 +14.54%
Feb. 28 Fountain of Youth On-Track 2009 $1,290,079 2008 $844,327 +52.76%
Overall 2009 $14,714,887 2008 $10,827,869 +35.90%
March 28 Florida Derby On-Track 2009 $1,974,133 2008 $1,976,497 -.12% Overall 2009 $18,470,378 2008 $20,246,952 -8.77%
Several equine stars grabbed centerstage during the meet, foremost among them the two 3-year-olds, Quality Road and Justwhistledixie, each of whom won two stakes and headed to Kentucky as Derby and Oaks favorites, respectively.
Edward Evans’ Quality Road became the 12th colt to double in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby and he left his Florida winter quarters highly fancied to follow the same path to the Kentucky Derby winners’ circle as that blazed by fellow former Palm Meadows residents Funny Cide (2003), Barbaro (2006), Street Sense (2007) and Big Brown (2008). Quality Road is trained by Jimmy Jerkens and was ridden by Johnny Velazquez.
Justwhistledixie was as dominant among the 3-year-old fillies as Quality Road was among the colts. She became the fifth filly to take both the Davona Dale and the Bonnie Miss. She’s owned by West Point Thoroughbred, Lakland Farm and R. Dee Hubbard; is trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, and was ridden by two of the rising stars of the jockey colony, Alan Garcia and Julien Leparoux.
Albertus Maximus, coming off his Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile victory and preparing for a start in the $6 million Dubai World Cup, took Gulfstream Park’s showcase event for older horses, the Donn Handicap, on a weekend that also saw 2007 Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Kip DeVille whip 2006 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Red Rocks in the Gulfstream Park Turf.
Todd Pletcher wore down Ken McPeek in a spirited duel to gain his sixth consecutive Gulfstream Park trainers’ title and Jose Lezcano, who during the meet recorded his 1,000th career victory, took his first riding championship at Gulfstream Park. Pletcher had 37 winners during the meet and Lezcano recorded 67 winners, including the final winner of the meet, the $61.80 longshot Sydney Road.
“It’s a beautiful way to finish the season here, especially with such a long shot,” said the native Panamanian, three days after his 24th birthday.
Jockey Elvis Trujillo joined Lezcano in recording his 1,000th career victory during the meet.
The high tide of growing business raised ships in the slots room, poker parlor and dining rooms as well.
A month-to-month comparison of East Coast slot facilities, published by Gaming Industry Observor, an independent newsletter that tracks and analyzes trends that impact the near- and long-term future of gaming, showed that Gulfstream Park’s business has increased while revenue at other regional facilities has faltered.
“Our business grew about 4.3% over the first three months of the year,” said Steve Calabro, Vice President of Gaming, “and we’re experiencing double-digit growth, about 13%, in April.”
Mr. Calabro went on to say that the two highest monthly revenues for coin-in – the volume of play for slot machines – were recorded, respectively, in March (more than $57 million) and January (more than $54 million). He also said that 13 of the top 20 highest revenue days were recorded during the 2009 meet.
Mr. Calabro also said, ““I attribute that to the fact that more and more people are discovering our product,” Mr. Calabro said. “They recognize the beauty of the exterior and the interior comfort and selection of games.
“In addition to the beauty, comfort and selection of games available here, I attribute the increased business to the simple fact that we paid out some huge jackpots. We had seven that paid $50,000 or more, and one that paid $250,000, which is a record for any pari-mutuel facility in Florida.
“And the really interesting thing,” he said, “is the link with horse racing: Two of those jackpots were won by one of our leading stable owners; one was won by a famous trainer and another was won by a racing columnist. Obviously, a connection exists between the two endeavors.”
Mr. Calabro said The State of Florida has profited from $6.5 million in tax revenue from Gulfstream Park slots year-to-date, with the county and city picking up an additional $1 million.
An earlier report by GIO noted that Gulfstream Park’s average win, per unit, per day, for calendar year 2008 was 30.3% over the previous year, which put the world-famous racetrack’s gaming operations first among the 39 eastern gaming facilities mentioned in the report.
“Clearly, as our business grows, so grows the state and local tax revenues,” he said.
Scott Poole, Gulfstream Park’s Poker Room manager, reported that cardroom revenue was up from last year’s figures each of the first three full months of the year, and showed no sign of slowing down.
“Comparing 2008 year-to-date monthly revenue, we experienced a 17.5% increase in January; an 11.8% growth in February, and a 12.5% increase in March,” he said. “Our current pace through the first 22 days of April will show an increase of approximately 13% over April 2008.”
Mr. Poole also reported that the top two poker days in terms of gross daily revenue were recorded March 1 ($17,572) and Feb. 28 ($16,944) and that “Our signature ‘Tournament Challenge Series,’ including our current event that will send three talented players to the 2009 World Series of Poker, continue to be wildly popular.”
The State of Florida received $381,223 from the cardroom in 2008, and has received $116,401 already in 2009.
Business with the food and beverage department was also up from last year. Having partnered with the Make a Wish Foundation before the meeting, Gulfstream Park will donate nearly $10,000 to the organization, representing 5% of the proceeds each Sunday from the Ten Palms restaurant. Children from the program received tours of the barn area, spent time with the jockeys and took part in winners’ circle ceremonies as they and their families enjoyed a day at the races.
“There isn’t a soul in this building who wasn’t touched by that experience,” Mr. Murphy said. “You could see it not only in the faces of the children and their families, but also in the faces of the many jockeys and horsemen who came in contact with them. Those kids left a deep and profound impact with everyone who took part in the program, and it’s these kind of initiatives that bring out the best in us and put this sport in its best light.”