HALLANDALE BEACH, January 2, 2021 — It was the kind of afternoon that visitors, locals and snowbirds alike envision when they visit Gulfstream Park on a winter Saturday.
With temps in the low 70s, a breeze that might have reached 15 miles per hour and a palette of blue sky peppered with wispy clouds, the kind of heavens that photographers conjure in their dreams, a perfect day.
Now, if there were only fans.
Back in the day –2019—there would have been 20,000 souls in the place, surrounding the ring, or having lunch in restaurants overlooking the racetrack, most grabbing hot dogs and yelling at simulcast monitors.
You know, any day at the races.
However, only horsemen and media were there, one writer and a photo journalist meant to be confined to the press suite but at times stealing a breath of air at ground level where you could reach out and almost touch the horses, almost being the operative word.
The paddock is verboten, even to credentialed media. If I worked on the backstretch, that’s the way I’d want it, too.
The casino is open, second floor only so that the track can restrict contact with the participants. There are 20 or 30 VIP bettors sitting in the front rows of the race book, an area that can accommodate 1,000 and normally would.
Access is also provided customers in private luxury suits on the third floor, replete with automated betting machines and balcony views that permit cross ventilation when suite doors are left ajar.
In my view, Gulfstream Park is the safest public area in this backward, wide-open state. I was stopped as I entered the track, talking my way in even as a credential hung from my neck alongside a cloth chain from which a facemask can dangle when no one was around.
I was security-checked often as I walked the apron, peering in and around the nooks and crannies that surround the winners circle. There were plenty of breezeway barstools available, but no longnecks to swig on or workers to serve them.
I was thankful for brief encounters with horsemen. The Gulfstream Park backstretch and the private training center at Palm Meadows in Boynton Beach one hour north are in lockdown to all except horsemen, the right thing to do because backstretch workers live there in proper housing.
John Kimmel walked by to watch his horse compete in a maiden turf event for newly turned 3-year-olds, a field that attracted 12 runners and over $1.9 million in handle, probably the best betting race anywhere in America on Saturday.
Dale Romans and Tammie Fox walked by. We chatted briefly as they awaited their Mucho Macho Man entrant to take the track. Tammie said I looked well, probably because my face was hidden from view, covered by a mask and face shield, the kind we see on TV when reporters talk with first responders, hospital workers who risk their lives to save ours.
They even tend to the willfully ignorant who, despite worldly evidence to the contrary, remain selfish enough to eschew masks and social distancing. Bars and sidewalks were five deep on Las Olas all New Year’s Eve day and night. I watched that from the safety of my den.
Enjoyed exchanging greetings with Acacia Courtney following her paddock report for the race that began what turned out to be an instant special promotion, the Pletcher Pick 3 culminating with Mutasaabeq in the day’s nominal feature, the last of five listed stakes on the day.
Spoke briefly with General Manager Bill Badgett and Communications Vice-President Dave Joseph, who told me I would receive a questionnaire regarding my intention to cover the Pegasus live in three weeks.
The press suite will be limited to 10, where the media will be sequestered throughout the day. I told him I would be there if he needed a fourth for bridge, allowing for plenty of social distancing. If more are expected, I told him I would probably pass.
I watched Courtney and Jason Blewitt winners’ circle interviews from a safe distance and learned a few things. On my way home, I ran into Steve Young. Some may recall that Young won the Wood Memorial 27 years ago with Irgun and now is a highly successful bloodstock agent.
I asked about how he, his family, and everyone else he knew were doing. “Family is good, but not everyone. It’s a very dangerous time,” he said.
Minutes later I walked back to my car, rolled the top down and enjoyed the 30-minute drive home.
Life Is Good and I’ll be home in plenty of time to see if Life Is Good, the three-year-old colt, is as good everyone seems to think he is.
Coming Tuesday: An assessment of this weekend’s Grade 3 Sham Stakes, the Mucho Macho Man, and the Gotham. The run for the Run for the Roses; it’s on.