Until recently, if I had been permitted to play the horses at only one time and place during the year, I would never have hesitated to choose the midwinter racing in Florida. With palm trees, blue skies, 12-horse fields and an endless array of exotic wagers, Florida was my idea of heaven.
But when Gulfstream Park opens its season Wednesday, I won't be there. Neither will some of the cronies who have shared my passion for Florida racing, who expected to spend every winter of their lives at either Gulfstream or Hialeah. We all feel pangs of regret, but the best racing in America has been ruined -- probably forever.
It wasn't easy to spoil such a wonderful game; people in the Florida thoroughbred business had to work at it for years. The track managements were so busy fighting each other that they let the quality of their racing slip, season after season.
Most of Florida's problems have their roots in the endless battle between Hialeah and Gulfstream over possession of the so-called "middle dates" -- the prime part of the tourist season that extends from early January through early March.
It would have been sensible for the tracks to alternate possession of the middle dates, but Hialeah President John J. Brunetti wasn't interested in compromise. Court battles between the two tracks became an annual ritual, reaching the height of virulence and absurdity in 1984, when Hialeah wrested away the middle dates one week before Gulfstream was scheduled to open.
This year, the third Florida track, Calder, also adopted the hate-thy-neighbor policy. Calder President Kenny Noe announced he would close down his track's stable area during the winter -- thus shutting out many stables and depriving Gulfstream and Hialeah of more than 1,000 thoroughbreds.
Horsemen around the country have been alienated and horseplayers won't get to enjoy the full fields that have been one of the most attractive features of the midwinter racing.
The warfare among the tracks has taken a heavy toll on the sport. Any state's racing industry needs support from its politicians if it is to prosper. And the only way to get that support is to approach the legislature as a united front and lobby effectively.
Maryland racing was slumping for years until track owners, breeders and horsemen put aside their differences and launched an all-out campaign for tax relief from Annapolis. In Florida, such unity would be unthinkable.
The unified, politically savvy entity is the greyhound-racing industry. Thoroughbred people say bitterly, "The dogs own the legislature."
Because of the horse tracks' own problems and the dog tracks' opposition, thoroughbred racing can't get anything accomplished in Tallahassee. They haven't been able to get Sunday racing. They haven't been able to get a bill that would permit minors to attend race tracks in the company of their parents. They haven't been able to ward off head-on competition from dog tracks and jai alai frontons (which operate by day and night).
The legislative climate is so hopeless that the Florida tracks can't even dream about what has been the top priority in other states: reducing the state's "take" from the betting dollar so more money will be available for purses.
Although many northern states have helped their racing industry this way, purses in Florida have fallen far behind. A $30,000 claiming race at Gulfstream this week will offer an $11,000 purse; at Aqueduct, a similar race carries a $20,000 purse. A medium-level class of allowance race with a $16,000 purse at Gulfstream is worth $26,000 in New York.
Horsemen have had to heed these economic realities. Unless a northern trainer has a good turf horse or a 3-year-old he is preparing for the classics, there is no earthly reason for him to bring his stable to Florida.
At one time, the day-to-day competition at Gulfstream and Hialeah was riveting. I couldn't wait to open each new racing form. Horses from New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Kentucky and Illinois would match up with the Florida regulars to create the richest, most diverse racing in America. Now, the midwinter racing is just a glorified version of Calder. It is hard to believe that God created so many cheap 3-year-olds and put them all in one place.
It's a far cry from the good old days when winning in Florida was a major objective of most major stables -- and many horseplayers. But the good old days are gone forever.