Gulfstream Park is Anything But Right and Bad for Racing

Here is a rebuttal to a "What's Going on Here" editorial that ran in the Jan. 29 edition of The Blood-Horse. We felt it deserved its own post. -- Eric Mitchell

Before I started this letter, I had to give you the benefit of the doubt, so I detoured a short trip to Florida last weekend and spend the day at the 'new', considerably lesser, Gulfstream Park.

I had not been there for a full day of racing since the 'changeover', when the full brilliance of Mr. Stronach e.t al. was allowed to bloom under the hot Florida sun. After spending Donn Handicap day there,I am convinced not just Mr. Stronach, but your editorial writer, should be checked for sun stroke.

Now this comes from a horse owner/breeder/fan who loved the 'old' version of GP. In fact, one of my horse buddies from up north had annually renewed his box there, and at least once if not twice or three times a winter I and some  of his other mooching friends would find a way to get to Florida for a few days of great racing in relaxed, fan friendly confines. His box afforded an expansive view of the track as a whole, and just a few short steps away inside the clubhouse there were rows of pari-mutuel clerks and lots of machines (though never quite enough on the big days, like Fla. Derby), good hand served ice cream, and a view out the back windows to the paddock.

We froze on occasion, sweltered on others. But we always sat outside, in the fresh air, and enjoyed the place and the moment, thoroughly. There was the Breeder's Cup when I spent all morning trying to convince my buddies of the merits of Golden Missile; the dinner afterward that night where at the next table a fan had used his house number in the Classic's trifecta and cashed tens of thousands; the winner's circle photo the Florida Derby day when my former trainer got his first real inkling of what the Derby trail would be like for him and his horse; and of course, the Sunday afternoon when I sat there  alone and handicapped my usual $32 pic 6 ticket and cashed the only winner in the place for a considerable sum.  

So I was prejudiced, I admit, and wary of the changes I had heard about from many horse buds, including the former boxholder who admitted to being dismayed at what the casino/shopping developer had wrought on the race fans, but all of my horror, dismay and sadness was encapsulated in the frustrated gentleman who approached me just before the first race as I futilely searched the second floor to find a way to reach the few rows of seats which the 'new' GP had bestowed upon the fan base. He came up to me and in sheer exasperation said "Buddy, this is the first time I've been back in years; don't they have live racing here anymore? Is it just a casino and a simulcast parlor?"

I felt his pain. I tried to show him where the track still was, although from the 2nd floor you cannot access the few remaining outdoor seats unless you (1) go back downstairs, find a place called 'Silks" inside the casino/simulcast parlor,(2) buy a $35 ticket, (3) return back upstairs,(4) cross the entire width of the dining room, and(5) find an open door to your seats (somehow). Dr. Livingston, I presume? Even then, there are only a few hundred of these precious viewpoints allowed to us. The rest of the fans who turn out for a big day like the Donn? Does the phrase 'second class citizen:" strike a chord?

The heaps of praise dumped upon this sham of a racetrack by The Blood-Horse recently came back to me as I struggled to stand on tiptoes and actually see the last few yards of a race from the apron, where perhaps five hundred fans stood similarly frustrated (and I'm six foot two, so ex-jockeys don't stand a chance) by the cruel and thoughtless construction of the 'new' GP. Dozens of other fans crowded the rail near the 'Tiki Hut' bar, which affords a few shady spots in the Florida sun but again, no view of the track other than the rail at track level. And the rest of the crowd? They were jammed inside in over-heated, over-crowded simulcast areas in the dark, or hovered out by the paddock where the kindness of strangers had actually constructed a few rows of stadium type seats around the paddock, so that the horses could be viewed as they walked from their indoors saddling enclosure to the track. A lucky fan who was not answering nature's call or placing a bet (who would ever think of that?) at the exact moment when the equines paraded lavishly for a minute or two before their stunned eyes might actually see a horse and a jockey! What fun! For about thirty seconds, that is. Then the crowd in the paddock would look up at the TV screens and watch the races electronically, while some 200 feet away the actual race took place, but of course, there was no way to see it! 

This isn't Beulah Park in the winter, or Laurel Park in a blizzard. It's Gulfstream in the winter sun, and yet the real racing fan and the handicapper can't begin to comprehend the mess this once proud racetrack has become under the guise of misplaced 'new' ness. I have no idea where your writer might have spent HIS day, but all I saw Saturday were hundreds of horseplayers stumbling around, looking lost, unable to see the races live, rarely able to spot a horse in fact, amidst the granite and marble splendors supposedly, I guess, designed to emulate a Vegas casino,but with none of the warmth (yes, facetiously, he said).

No Gulfstream didn't get it right. Not even close. As someone who has been to four or five dozen racetracks, at least a dozen Breeder's Cups, a few Derby's, dozens of Belmont's and Travers', and almost every Preakness for twenty years, I could not let the lunacy of that article pass without comment after spending a horrible, defeated day at the new lavish, and totally fan-unfriendly, inefficient and troubling Gulfstream Park. For indeed if this is the future of horse racing, as a simulcast stage for those far away rather than a fan based sporting experience for those who choose to spend their day amidst the magnificent athletes which are our horse friends, then the NTRA, Jockey Club, and every other organization dedicated to the advancement of the sport, might as well close shop right now, because we have no future. There will be no new fans; there will be no fathers lifting their five year old daughters under the saddling elms so that they can see the horses better; there will be no sixteen year old sons learning from their dad the difference between a money and a record allowance race while they sit in the grandstand at Belmont; there will be no jockeys stopping to sign autographs on their mud splattered way back to the jock's lounge after a summer;'s thunderstorm race at the Spa, because there won't be any tracks like these, just simulcast studios like Gulfstream which, according to the industry's best magazine, is how it should be done in the future! Because, according to The Blood-Horse, Gulfstream got it "right"!

What a bleak, condescending,cynical and cold  future that is, if we are to believe The Blood-Horse's writer. But I just spent the better part of a day of my life NOT in the glorious relaxed winter's sun at a Florida palace of racing, but at a marble and granite enclosed television studio which treats the real fans like so many troubling ants at  picnic, and from down here amidst the sweating crowded throngs, we can just cast our eyes up toward the heavens and wonder WHO in the world decided this is the wave of the future? And as a breeder and owner on a small scale, but as a fan on a very large scale, I was saddened beyond belief when I left that evening, because I knew I had forever left a nice warm chunk of my past, and so many nice memories, behind forever. And in a few years, nobody in South Florida will even remember how wonderful it used to be.or apparently, care.

Did somebody say Hialeah might open again?

W.S. McGee

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