Construction of New Gulfstream Park Points to Destruction

By Andrew Beyer
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

HALLANDALE, Fla. For decades, Gulfstream Park had been one of the most pleasant racetracks on earth. Its distinguishing feature was the large paddock and walking ring behind the grandstand, where fans could watch the horses while sitting under blue skies and palm trees.

The rhythm of daily life at Gulfstream revolved around this grassy area. Owners and their friends would gather in the center of the walking ring and socialize. Outside the perimeter, horseplayers sat in lawn chairs, studying their racing forms as they enjoyed the sunshine. When the call to post was sounded, they would migrate to the betting windows and watch the races on TV or from a grandstand seat; then they would return to their seats in the sunshine.

Gulfstream was so congenial that I have been coming here almost every winter since the mid-1970s. Like most fans, I thought it was unnecessary when the Magna Entertainment Corp. announced plans to raze the facility and build a whole new Gulfstream Park.

Magna's chairman, Frank Stronach, promised: "There will be nothing like it in America or the world." Although Stronach has plenty of idiosyncratic ideas, few people worried about what he might do to Gulfstream. How could anybody spoil the sunshine, the blue skies, the palm trees and the matchless ambience of this place?

When the $171 million facility opened this month, much of it was still under construction, but it was evident what Stronach has done. He has destroyed the old Gulfstream -- not only its infrastructure but its atmosphere. He has replaced it with what is being described as an entertainment center with overtones of Las Vegas. I'd call it bizarre and perverse.

Gulfstream certainly was overdue for some changes. Like many old racetracks, its grandstand with 14,500 seats overlooking the track was an anachronism; the track needed a proper simulcasting facility. And with slot machines legalized in Broward County, the track has to be ready to reinvent itself as a "racino." The new Gulfstream has met these aims with two large simulcast pavilions that resemble typical facilities found in casino racebooks. And the track will eventually have five restaurants, a sports bar and entertainment facilities -- mostly aimed at slot-machine customers.

But why spoil what was so good at the old Gulfstream? The new paddock is a travesty. Instead of being the center of attention, thoroughbreds are saddled in a narrow tunnel, outside of public view. They make a three-minute appearance in a walking ring so cramped that there is barely enough room for the owners. (Typically, owners and trainers stand in the middle of a ring while the horses circle them -- but not at Gulfstream, where the middle of the ring is inexplicably occupied by a fountain.) There are no lawn chairs and no lawn -- not a single blade of grass. The ring is surrounded by some 900 stadium-style seats, but it's not a place to spend the day, because most of the time the only thing to watch is the spewing fountain.

Still, it's one of the few areas where patrons can sit comfortably out of doors. While it made sense for Magna to reduce the size of the grandstand, the new Gulfstream grandstand is almost nonexistent, with only 900 seats overlooking the track. Instead of emulating Saratoga, where box seats with televisions are coveted and always packed, Gulfstream has abolished box seats and has installed not a single TV in the vicinity of the grandstand. As a result, few people sit there. Owners, trainers and fans who used to occupy the boxes are expected to patronize the 1,000-seat Ten Palms restaurant when it opens later this month. Like all of the planned restaurants, it will be enclosed and air-conditioned. In a place where tourists come to enjoy the matchless climate, Gulfstream has not a single comfortable, functional place outdoors from which to watch the race.

Many racing fans are grumbling about the new Gulfstream, but most assume that there must be some rational master plan behind the changes. There seems no doubt that Gulfstream is trying to appeal to a different clientele, one that is more affluent and younger than the Social Security crowd that has always populated the track. "Frank wants to try to rebrand racing to appeal to a whole new audience," said track president Scott Savin.

But there is another explanation for what is happening at Gulfstream, and it can be gleaned from another of the track's features, the Horse Wizard. Stronach conceived the idea of a device that marries horse racing with a slot machine and championed its development by Magna engineers. The result is farcical. Bettors can wager only to win, place and show on races that the Horse Wizard selects. A year ago, Laurel unveiled an upscale room filled with Horse Wizards, and quietly closed the facility because nobody played the machines.

Despite the evidence that the device is a total failure, one of the two simulcasting pavilions at the new Gulfstream is dominated by nearly 100 Horse Wizards. Girls wearing jockey-silk blouses serve as attendants -- and they have no customers. The explanation for the Horse Wizards' presence is the same as the reason for everything else that doesn't make sense here -- and it's not because of a rational master plan. Speaking of the Horse Wizard, Magna executives say privately that nobody in the company can tell the chairman, "Frank, this is a bad idea."

When one of my friends surveyed the facilities here, he asked, bewildered, "Whom did they build this place for?" That's the $171 million question. It's not for people who love thoroughbreds. It's not for people who come to Florida to enjoy the weather. It's certainly not for the retirees who have always constituted a large segment of Gulfstream's clientele. The new Gulfstream is a monument to misguided ideas about what a racetrack should be.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company