Monday, June 24, 2013

It’s Opening…er…Closing Day at Gulfstream Park

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, June 24, 2013—At once, Tuesday marks the dawn of a new era and same story-different year for Florida Thoroughbred racing. Can’t we all just get along?

For the first time ever, Gulfstream Park, widely regarded as this country’s premier race meet each January through March, will conduct racing in June when eight races are contested on June 25 beginning at 12:50 p.m.

It is especially strange to post this story on the same day the New York Racing Association confirmed its 2013 stakes schedule and announced a series of events that will mark 150 years of Saratoga racing.

It’s much too early for me to know how I feel about the Florida situation. There are so many variables to consider on either side of the Calder/Gulfstream schism, especially when you know people on both ends.

But this much seems clear about Gulfstream’s expansion: Thoroughbred racing in South Florida could not be in better racing hands, nor can it be better positioned for the future.

No matter which parties are involved, conventional wisdom says that racing in the long term will always be better off in private hands than it would be with a publicly traded corporation.

Tuesday’s closing-day start—84 horses were entered in eight races—is being conducted so that Gulfstream can share in simulcast revenues throughout the year as its own hub. The strong turnout of horses doubtlessly reflects $4,000 purse increases for all races and a $1,000 appearance fee per starter.

Parenthetically, Tampa Bay Downs is hosting a similar “closing day” program next month. Again, this posturing by the three tracks is all about sharing in simulcast revenues.

The Gulfstream “summer meet” begins July 1. Since Tuesday’s program officially closes the 2012-13 meet, there will be mandatory payouts in both the 10-Cent Rainbow Six and 50-Cent Pick 5 pools.

Carryovers will resume when the 2013 season begins next month. Recall that the Rainbow Six produced multi-million-dollar carryovers including a record $3.5 million won by a single New Jersey-based bettor in February.

To prepare for summer racing, Gulfstream spent one million dollars of its 2012-13 record handle to improve its drainage system in advance of the biblical summer rain storms of South Florida.

A gutter was installed between the inside dirt rail and outside rail on the turf course to move and drain rain runoff faster. The project was deemed successful when, after 14 inches of rain fell on June 7, horses trained the next morning.

In summer, the surface will have a sandier base; in winter, more loam. When the racing surfaces were changed several years ago, the turf course was raised 11 feet higher so the tide doesn’t come into play as it once did. Thirty-six pipes to facilitate drainage installed under the turf course also hastens the drying process.

Tuesday's Gulfstream feature race goes as the seventh, an allowance/optional claiming event headed by a Kirk Ziadie-trained entry. It also features a starter from Team Ward/Rosario, Wesley and Joel hooking up to win the Norfolk last week at Royal Ascot.

Second to repeat leading-rider Javier Castellano, Rosario rode 89 winners in his first full Gulfstream winter campaign which included victories aboard subsequent Kentucky Derby-winning Orb.

Meanwhile, the Calder/Gulfstream rift comes down to the amount of compensation Gulfstream is willing to remunerate Calder for the dates in question and what Calder is willing to accept; that and a negotiated split of simulcast revenues.

As a matter of course, we’re never in favor of one track dominating a market if that market has proven it can support disparate entities. But when it comes to survival--in Florida and everywhere—tracks are better served by cooperation, not competition.

While Calder has de facto deemphasized racing in recent years, Frank Stronach’s devotion to the sport is paying dividends. The Gulfstream brand is very strong nationally; the reason it can charge a 9 percent host fee, the highest in the country.

When the Hallandale Beach track expanded into December two years ago, Gulfstream’s all-sources handle was four times that of Calder’s. In April, Gulfstream’s dates were twice those of comparative dates at the Miami Lakes track.

Blessed with great weather last winter, the 10 percent on-track gains of 2011-12 expanded in 2012-13 to an on-track increase of 25 percent.

According to data supplied by Gulfstream, on-track handle has grown 35 percent in the last three years, while all-sources increased by 10 percent. Even with three more days of racing, 87 days to 90, average handle per race in 2012-13 grew from $734,000 to $843,000.

Insiders have volunteered that Gulfstream’s ultimate goal is to race unopposed four days per week, Thursday through Sunday. Management feels that being disruptive will prove to be a good thing for Florida racing and its horsemen.

I hope that it never will come down to racing head-to-head. But as for which South Florida track is positioned to have a profound, positive effect on the future, the two-track battle looks more like a one-track race.

Written by John Pricci

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