Monday, February 28, 2011
(MIAMI BEACH, FL -February 28, 2011) Americans have lost their zeal for the good life. They've replaced the desire to live simply and well with an existence that's wanting and consumptive. On South Beach, the pace is frenetic and frantic and the days move alarmingly fast. Yet, they're decidedly empty of anything meaningful or fully enjoyed, as when Ernest Hemingway wrote novels and President Harry Truman dealt poker hands in nearby Key West 60 years ago.
A bit farther north, an experience that used to be mellow - a day at the races - has become numbing. Saturday, Gulfstream Park, the home of Florida's finest thoroughbred racing, hosted more than its typical number of sun-seeking visitors who like to play the horses and watch them in person. Never mind that most of the crowd huddled deep in the bowels of the building at slot machines or spent time stuffing mouths with high caloric fuel from an obnoxious buffet. Understanding that eating mountains of food doesn't equate to satisfaction of the palate is a concept that sailed out to sea in a cruise ship.
Not much is accommodating about Gulfstream in terms of creature comfort. The lines at the parimutuel windows are tediously long because of their remoteness and number. The seats in the grandstand are limited and cramped by an architectural design that placed saving ahead of investing. Ingress and egress cause distress. It's near impossible to read the odds shown in the infield, especially when the sun takes a spot at your back and douses the toteboard with brilliance. If nature doesn't interfere with the display's readability, then the thick stucco pillars that lift up the roof block your view.
Regardless, for as wildly as Frank Stronach's erred with his grand restoration, he's managed to get an important part right. Horse racing's no longer the "Sport of Kings" but the "Sport of the Proletariat." Redesigning a racecourse, or replacing one from scratch, requires an understanding of your audience. It's a skill that's not easily learned by people in ivory towers who don't walk the streets. The age of lavish plants, serving a privileged class in luxury, is apparently over. New York racecourses would kill to have as many warm bodies for next Saturday's Gotham as Gulfstream had for its Fountain of Youth, a stakes with a name that aptly describes how the czar of car parts has revitalized the sport by dumb sizing it.
There are racetrack properties that derive their popularity because they present the established, traditional experience. The most notable are Saratoga nd Keeneland. Observers used to believe that Gulfstream was that kind of racecourse, too. With its long history of Kentucky Derby preps compacted into three winter months, it was the sport's ultimate escape - a proper venue for assessing the relative abilities of the nation's best three-year-olds, a place deserving of reverential observance. What is is now - now that the world has become "let me be myself" lazy - is an equine pachinko parlor. Give Stronach credit to see us for who we are. Many people see us differently.
Burdened by obesity, we can't button a fancy shirt at the neck or cinch a belt on our waistline. Afraid to think because life doesn't require it, we fill our heads with cacophony, believing quiet is for those who are boring. The A.D.D.world that dictates daily behavior has us believing that patience is time wasting. If something requires sacrifice, we pass on it. The value of enterprise rests in how much money can be made, and so businesses that are built to help people and serve customers are often plowed over.
It's a snap to write about what's wrong with Gulfstream; a little tougher to defend the features that have made it successful. You can begin with the weather. People simply want to be where it's warm when it's cold where they normally are. That's what brings the very best horses and trainers and jockeys here. This makes one wonder also why Stronach believes Gulfstream can race 'round the calendar. The dates fight between the owners of Calder and him merely makes him look bully-like - an image he can't seem to shed. The argument proves that he still hasn't learned the most basic lesson in luxury goods marketing - limit the supply of everything that's precious.
Like the old Gulfstream, most racecourses are wrong-suited for the sport's current constituency. Like the new Gulfstream, most racecourses should be smaller. Only people with over-starched attitudes, however, would prefer the pickled, un-democratized gathering places to one that's alive, albeit imperfect. Fans have become accepting of Gulfstream's foibles because they feel at home in the track's frat boy trappings. Stronach was smart to develop a village of retail establishments selling the same junk you can buy elsewhere next door. Familiar is preferred to the exotic these days. It may seem as though the horse is the least important ingredient in Stronach's brew, but it's not. Fans can cozy up to the action, if they care.
Whether you like Gulfstream or not depends on what you think a racetrack is. The worst part of leaving this Earth comes from leaving your memories. People who have been around racecourses for a long time treasure the flamingos at Hialeah and the street cars to Greenwood. It would be an enormous stretch to assume you'll remember anything fondly about being at Gulfstream - unless, of course, you remember it in green and pink, long and low to the horizon like an indigenous element, with the orchids in bloom and a Donn in charge.
Vic Zast is grateful to Dailyn at the Z Ocean Hotel on South Beach for assisting him in bringing this column to HorseRaceInsider.com when his computer screen went black and he was left helpless without the use of technology.