MIAMI — Horseplayers from coast to coast circle the opening date of the Gulfstream Park season on their calendars, eagerly awaiting its big fields, big betting pools and big payoffs. Stables are drawn here by the good weather, the turf course and the stakes program, giving Gulfstream a product that has made it one of the sport’s few shining success stories.
But Gulfstream is demonstrating this winter that the thoroughbred industry can be its own worst enemy. Almost everywhere else in the U.S., racetracks in the same geographical area operate on schedules designed to avoid conflict. Yet Gulfstream and Calder Race Course — located eight miles apart — are racing concurrently this winter, with predictably negative results. “Everybody is losing,” said Calder’s general manager, John Marshall.
This is a war between the nation’s two principal track owners, Frank Stronach and Churchill Downs Inc. Stronach loves racing, but he regularly devises dubious ideas to promote it, and nobody in his organization can tell him, “Frank, this crazy.” (His latest vision: erecting an 11-story statue of Pegasus on the Gulfstream grounds at a cost of $30 million.) Churchill is Stronach’s antithesis, a pragmatic corporation focused on its bottom line, with diminishing interest in horse racing, except for the fabulously profitable Kentucky Derby.
For years, Stronach has believed that tracks should be allowed to run whenever they want. Having invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Gulfstream, he understandably wants to utilize the track for more than a four-month wintertime race meeting. Because the industry in Florida racing is almost anarchic, and the state has deregulated racing dates, Gulfstream began in June to operate on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer and fall — the part of the calendar that always had belonged to Calder.
Calder’s once-thriving racing business has declined in recent years. It is profitable because of its slot machines, but it needs to operate as a track to retain the slots license. Tim Ritvo, president of Gulfstream, thought his company could work out a deal under which Calder would run the minimum necessary racing dates.
“We gave them at offer that would let them keep the casino license,” Ritvo said, but Calder didn’t accept it.
Marshall said, “The issue is not about live racing.” It’s about simulcasting. In Florida, a track running a live thoroughbred meeting distributes simulcast signals to the state’s other parimutuel facilities, including its many greyhound tracks, and receives a commission. Calder’s income from these commissions was significant: $8 million for itself and another $8 million for purses. Marshall said this income was a fair reward to Calder for racing during the least desirable dates, when the tourists and northern stables have gone home. Now Gulfstream, and Tampa Bay Downs, too, are competing with Calder for a share of that revenue.
Racing fans may not care about the details of this financial and legal fight. (A key question is whether Gulfstream’s two-day-a-week summer schedule constituted a proper race meeting.) But fans do care about its impact on the racing product. Calder has been running pitiful cards, typified by its first program of 2014. The average field consisted of 6.4 horses on the eight-race card; four of the races were won by odds-on favorites. Under normal circumstances, the horses competing at Calder would be running at Gulfstream or Tampa Bay Downs, and their absence mostly has impacted the lower-level claiming races at both tracks. The Calder effect was evident last Sunday, when Gulfstream carded a bottom-of-the-barrel race (for maiden $12,500 filly 3-year-olds) and it drew a terrible six-horse lineup.
Nevertheless, Gulfstream’s product remains the strongest in the racing marketplace, and its average field size is only slightly smaller than last season: 9.0 horses per race vs. 9.2. One might expect that its loyal customers would be wagering with their usual gusto. But they haven’t been doing so. Average daily betting has dropped from $8.2 million a year ago to $7.6 million this season. Because Gulfstream has raced on fewer days, total wagering for December and January has plunged by more than $80 million, a stunning figure. Ritvo maintains that there are various extenuating circumstances to explain the decline (rainy weather washed out many grass races, for instance), but there are also overarching issues involved here. Gulfstream is paying a price for ignoring some of the realities of the modern racing game.
Stronach’s decision to extend Gulfstream’s racing into the summer months not only triggered the war with Calder but tarnished his track’s image. With the two tracks running simultaneously, there weren’t enough horses available for either of them to put on a respectable show. The cards filled with six- and seven-horse fields bore no resemblance to what fans expect from Gulfstream.
By expanding the season, Stronach also flew in the face of evidence about what makes modern-day racetracks successful. The most popular tracks in the U.S. — such as Saratoga, Del Mar, Keeneland and Oaklawn Park — share a common trait: They have relatively short, defined racing seasons. Opening day at these places is a banner event, and the racing never feels routine—a marked contrast to the forlorn atmosphere that characterizes almost every year-round racing operation.
Gulfstream has always been a track in the category of Saratoga and Del Mar, a special place with a special brand of racing. Tacking on months of low-quality races to its distinctive winter season can only debase it.
For more by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.