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 (Originally published in the January 29, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell
Eclipse Award winners seemed to be reading from the same playbook this year. Several, at some point during their acceptance speeches Jan. 17, touched on the need for Thoroughbred racing to get fans more involved and engaged.

Mike Repole got the ball rolling while accepting the Eclipse Award for his 2-year-old champion colt Uncle Mo.

“Without you guys, there is no sport,” he said. “We have to do more to be more accommodating.”

A big step toward making racing more inviting would be to upgrade our racetracks. This issue of The Blood-Horse contains a top-notch feature on the state of year-round racing. A key point made in the main article by Jacqueline Duke is that we have a saturation of live racing; more product than demand. The days when tens of thousands of people regularly spun the turnstiles to watch live racing don’t exist anymore. The big crowds are reserved for boutique meets and main events, such as the Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup, and select grade I races. Otherwise, our large, rambling grandstands are sparsely populated and not very inviting.

One racetrack did reinvent itself and got it right—Gulfstream Park.

I recently visited the Hallandale Beach, Fla., track fully prepared to hate it. My memories of Gulfstream Park have roots in the 1989 and 1992 Breeders’ Cups and several Florida Derbys in between. Standing on the wide concourse above the grandstand seating offered a sweeping view of the track enhanced by mild South Florida breezes coming off the Atlantic. A wide apron stretched along the rail where fans soaked up the sun and got close to the action.

Former owner Magna Entertainment (which has since gone bankrupt and transferred the track to current owner MI Development) tore down the old grandstand and replaced it with a much smaller facility that opened in 2006. Company founder Frank Stronach’s vision was to create an entertainment destination by building a more modern facility with an adjacent retail development filled with restaurants, bars, and fashion shops. Stronach has taken a lot of criticism over the years for his visions, but at Gulfstream Park his vision works.

Granted, grandstand seating and the large apron are gone, and the track is no longer suited to host an event like the Breeders’ Cup without a lot of temporary seating. Another knock against the new track is a majority of the seating is indoors where a seat in the simulcast parlor or clubhouse will cost at least $10. But no one pays anything to park, and there is no admission fee.

What the renovated Gulfstream Park does offer is a bright, clean, and modern facility with some unique features, such as several rows of stadium seating surrounding the saddling paddock. The grandstand also wraps like a horseshoe around the paddock, and balconies on the upper floors provide race fans with an easy view of the horses.

The more compact grandstand with its Spanish architecture is easy to navigate and the Village at Gulfstream Park with about 40 shops, which opened a year ago, is literally across the street. The Village offers a good variety of places to eat and drink; a glitzy New York-style nightclub, a quaint Irish pub, or the Cadillac Ranch with a mechanical bull. For people who are more interested in shopping than racehorses, there is Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, A-Brand, Bobby Chan, and Claudio Milano.

An exercise rider told me the Village has done a lot to attract people in their late 20s to a racetrack they would have otherwise ignored.

“I grew up around horses my whole life, but my friends like horses just because they think they’re beautiful,” he said. “Where before they wouldn’t come here, now they do because they can enjoy a few races, bet a few dollars, and then go to the bars.”

Judging strictly by ontrack handle, the experiment seems to be working. In 2010 the ontrack handle averaged around $530,380 for the 79-day meet. For the first 11 days of this year’s meet, the ontrack handle is averaging around $595,300.

Gulfstream Park also has the draw of slot machines, which are tastefully integrated into the grandstand. No one is knocked over the head with the casino operation.

Most track owners cannot afford to tear down their facilities completely and rebuild, but Thoroughbred racing has to upgrade the experience at the racetrack if the goal is attracting new fans. For the sport to grow, we simply cannot afford not to.

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