Even casual fans here can recite a long list of problems that plague thoroughbred racing in Florida: Stupid, shortsighted politicians. Incessant feuding among track owners. Inadequate purses. Declining quality of competition.
Yet in spite of all these woes, I love Florida racing with a passion. If I had to choose only one place and time each year to play the horses, it would be here and now. Starting today, the opening of the Gulfstream Park season, this is a horseplayer's heaven.
There is no more pleasant or comfortable environment in racing than Gulfstream and Hialeah, which alternate possession of the prime midwinter racing dates in Florida. Both tracks are filled with wonderful esthetic touches, like the spacious paddock areas where bettors can spend the day amidst palm trees and statues and fountains.
But to a hard-core player, there is nothing more beautiful in Florida than the experience of opening the Daily Racing Form each day and contemplating the extent of the action available.
In other places, the racing game can be plagued by monotony: small, noncompetitive fields and a colony of horses and trainers that becomes all too familiar too soon. But not here. Florida lures so many stables from around the country that there is an equine population explosion each winter. On the first two racing programs at Gulfstream, every one of the 10 races drew full, 12-horse fields.
There is no other racing in the United States with such challenge and such opportunity for a studious handicapper. Horses from all over the country are thrown together into competition here. Today's feature race, the Spectacular Bid Stakes, brought together colts who last had raced at Aqueduct, Thistledown, Hawthorne, Hollywood, Woodbine, Calder, Greenwood and the Meadowlands.
Comparing the form of such horses isn't easy, of course. I spend several weeks preparing for this season, compiling speed figures for tracks all over the country. But because the races are so complex and competitive, it frequently is possible to ferret out solid horses who are paying 10 to 1, 20 to 1 or even more.
And Gulfstream doesn't believe in denying its customers any chance to bet. Every 10-race program includes nine exactas, seven trifectas, a daily double and a pick six. Action!
The game here has been so wonderfully exciting for so long that it's depressing to think that it could ever be spoiled. But the people who control the Florida racing industry have been doing their best. The ancient blood feud between Hialeah and Gulfstream, which have annually battled each other over possession of the prime midwinter dates, has been a destructive one.
Because the track managements won't work together, they haven't been able to get any help from the state legislature for their industry. So Florida has no Sunday racing. It has an anachronistic rule that prevents minors from coming to the track.
Florida's lawmakers have shown no inclination (as their counterparts in many other states have) to give racing tax relief so that it can offer more purse money. The purses here are so poor that the overall quality of the competition seems to deline a little more each year.
One day in the future, the game here could be utterly ruined. But it's hard for a horseplayer to think about long-range issues when he's sitting under a palm tree, doping out 10 12-horse fields and seven trifectas, relishing the greatest game in the world.