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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.

33 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Equination.net

Excellent article.  

Racetrack officials need to stop clutching onto the days of yesteryear and start focusing on the future and the younger crowds.  With so much going on in our society today, racing is lost in the shadow of everything else available for people to do.  Racetracks offering bars isn't exactly new, but no one knows they exist.  Tracks are spending their tiny marketing budgets advertising to the same old crew that has been coming to the track for years instead of piquing the interest of the up and coming generations.  Offer a bit of entertainment between races, affordable drinks and tell people that it's happening and people will come.

People of my generation (20s) willingly go to bars and simply socialize, drink, maybe dance and listen to music.  If people knew they could do all of that, plus watch exciting horse racing, and not have to pay an arm and a leg to do so, I'm sure more people would be willing to give the racetrack a try.  I don't think accomplishing that would require a complete overhaul like Gulfstream received, either.  

More night racing would also be a benefit.  Of course tracks are going to be mostly empty Monday to Friday during the day since most people don't get off work (or school) until the races are over with.  Again - the industry caters to people who are already a part of it and finish work at 11 am.  No one wants to go to the empty track after work to just watch simulcasting and those who are in it for the gambling typically take advantage of the various tools available that allow them to do their betting from the comfort of their home where they don't have to pay ridiculous amounts for a single beer.

Even a successful businessman like Stronach gets ridiculed by all other racetrack and industry officials, but at least he had his own power to make his vision come to life.  These officials need to start listening to the young employees and prospective employees who also share the same visions for change that the industry needs so dearly.  Instead these tracks have these ambitious people come forth and turn them away because change is apparently scary and evil, even though everyone everywhere knows and admits that change is needed to assist the future of this sport.

25 Jan 2011 2:36 PM
Maurice

I don't know what day you visited GP and can't imagine what beverages you consumed to come to the conclusion that Stronach got "it right" with this miserable facility completely unsuited for any purpose for which it is being used.

The facility is adequate for simulcasting, though a lack of signals and poor coordination lead to monitors side-by-side-by-side showing the same tracks - or news or sports - rather than a variety of signals. Sometimes one needs a search warrant to find sister tracks Laurel, Santa Anita and Golden Gate. And a $10 fee for a seat to watch simulcasting? What are the slots players charged for planting their butts in front of the machines?

For those wanting to see live racing, good luck with that. Unless you're one of the privaleged few to have a box, you'll be watching GP races on a monitor because there are no sight lines at this place. Even the restaurants are not tiered, making it impossible for anyone but those at the windows to see live racing.

The stadium-style seating works well enough for the walking ring, though don't expect to see the horses being saddled. However, the 900 or so grandstand seats are horrible for patrons who want anything more that a 7th-inning stretch. Plan to walk over others or be walked over going back and forth to the windows.

You're right that the Cup can never be held at the new GP. Unfortunately, the property cannot even comfortably accommodate the "crowd," such as it is, for the Sunshine Millions. Any day with major or even mid-major races is completely uncomfortable there and the easy navigation you experienced disappears entirely. Get shut out at the windows a few times and see how you feel about it then.

To the track's credit, they did add more SAM machines this year. They must have gotten them at bargain basement prices because malfunctions are common and you'll get shut out on these often even if you make it with time to spare.

The merchants in the village that you are so fond of experienced a financially disasterous summer, blaming the outdoor design and sweltering So. FL heat on their dismal business. Given the close proximity of the air-conditioned Aventura Mall, this should not have come as a surprise.

The racing and betting menus are improved this year and, yes, the facility is clean. But is this facility going to attract new racing fans when most won't ever be able to see the actual races? None of the newbies who have gone with me have a desire to go back.

25 Jan 2011 2:50 PM
Jon

I know this is off topic, but, what happened regarding the Breeders Cup Ladies classic incident involving "Life Is Sweet", never heard any result or action taken.

25 Jan 2011 5:46 PM
Lindsey

I think another thing that could be done is expand the focus of publications a little bit. As a 20 year old fan of racing, I have found that my peers who have gone to the track with me are just as (or more) interested in the whole realm of racing as they are in the gambling/sports-event atmosphere. It'd be nice to have more horses like Zenyatta whose owners help fans connect with her. I also enjoy reading features in racing publications on how the industry works, how trainers work with their animals, what jockey's lives are like, and so on.

25 Jan 2011 6:05 PM
warren a

mr. s is bad for this game

25 Jan 2011 7:04 PM
EUGENE LEVEY

Hooray for MAURICE...HE GOT IT RIGHT...Not FRANK

25 Jan 2011 7:32 PM
jimf

Lighten up Maurice! The place is immaculate, numerous food and drink options and first class racing.

It's been below freezing in upsate New York with 5 feet of snow since Christmas.

Soak up some sun and suds and enjoy yourself!

25 Jan 2011 8:23 PM
Mikem

I am going to GSP this weekend and will be disappointed if I can't find the Laurel and Golden Gate simulcasts.

26 Jan 2011 7:30 AM
Jacqui

Here's hoping this is not the same "JimF" who is a supposedly unbiased reporter for both the BloodHorse and Miami Herald? How many payrolls can one person be on? The completion of the mall makes all the difference, aesthetically, it's that simple, otherwise it's the same (boondoggle) as it ever was.

26 Jan 2011 10:23 AM
Loosehorse

Gulfstream did get it right. the first time I visited the South Florida track I too was fully prepaired to hate it. But is it just cool.

I see where it might upset the old time simulcast horseplayer like Maurice but unfortunately that is not the future of horseracing. While the die hard old time horseplayer needs to have their place at the racetrack, we need to attract a younger crowd or the sport will die. Gulfstream is doing just that. I love how the restaurants and bars wrap around the paddock to incorporate the racing with the nightlife.

If lining up TV's and showing all the simulcast signals like Laurel is what would attract new people the industry would not be in the trouble it is in.

It is unfortunate that Gulfstream can't host a Breeders' Cup but what people don't realize is that the host racetrack doesn't make a lot of money on the Breeders' Cup so Gulfstream probably had other priorities when redesigning.

26 Jan 2011 10:52 AM
Pedigree Ann

I would be happy to see the Sunshine Millions go down the tubes into the ashbin of history. All this group of races does is dilute the fields of similar graded races in the weeks surrounding it. Why run in the San Antonio, for instance, against open company when you can run for more versus Cal/Fla-breds only? Why not put the purse money into beefing up the better stakes and the overnight purses?

26 Jan 2011 11:37 AM
C Bea

I've made this comment before. Imagine where NBA, NFL, MLB would be if the OWNERS of the teams were 100% responsible for building and outfitting their stadiums and facilities. But they have taxpayers footing the bill!

And imagine where horse-racing standing MIGHT be if we had nothing but the fanciest nicest entertainment facilities to take your friends and family!!

26 Jan 2011 12:02 PM
PomDeTerre

To Jon- regarding your question about the Life at Ten debacle;;;  what happened was that Pletcher got voted Trainer of the Year and was given another Eclipse Award.  No comment.

26 Jan 2011 3:57 PM
Zenyatta John

To Pedigree Ann -

The only reason the Sunshine Millions exists is Frank Stronach's ego. You are correct it's a shame they purge runners from graded races for weeks.

Just another reason Fabulous Frank needs to give up his racing ventures before he ruins racing in both states.  

26 Jan 2011 5:36 PM
ML/NJ

It's nice that you like what Gulfstream has done.  But I wouldn't walk across the street to enter the place.  (I'll fly to Keeneland in April though.)  Any track that thinks I want to watch their races on a TV monitor has lost me.  I don't care what kind of races they run.  I want them to go bankrupt, close down, and make way for a Hialeah resurgence.

26 Jan 2011 6:28 PM
Waquoit

Maurice is correct. If you want to spend a day watching and wagering on live racing, Gulfstream is not the place. The Northampton Fair had a better set-up than Gulfstream has now.  

26 Jan 2011 7:30 PM
Phil

Maurice has it right....$10 fee for a seat to watch simulcasting? What are the slots players charged for planting their butts in front of the machines?

A $10 fee for a seat to watch simulcasting with a 25% takeout.

slot players are not charged for sitting their butts in front of the machines with a 5% takeout.

Who's got the better deal?

26 Jan 2011 8:56 PM
Rachel

C Bea, not one penny of taxpayer money bult the Patriot's Gillette Stadium...owner Robert Kraft built it himself in 2002, plus 72 million in payback to state for road and infrastructure improvements...

27 Jan 2011 8:41 AM
Gerald Bortolazzo MD

Love Gulfstream. Great racing with real nice horses, excellent jockeys,  and great trainers. Simulcast area is very nice as is the staff. The buffet upstairs quite nice as is the service. Love the roving ticket sellers like Steve.   All in all, I have totally enjoyed my numerous visits to the new Gulfstream. Now, all I need is a few of those $54 winners!

27 Jan 2011 9:18 AM
Brian Russell

Maurice is 100% correct about the self service machines which are so old they still run on Windows 95 (I'm not kidding).  There is apparently no one in charge of the TV's as there were 2 yesterday showing a 20 year old rerun of "In The Heat of Night" within 12 feet of one another.  This is sloppy and could, and should, be corrected by management.  That said, the redesign worked.  I personally know many people in their 20's and 30's that now attend at least once a week when they had previously not been in their entire lives.  The Tiki Huts in particular seem to attract a younger crowd.

27 Jan 2011 10:55 AM
apajax6

No, Gulfstream tried the right thing, but got it wrong at the end.  While there does need to be a hook to get the younger crowd in, the hook doesn't involve diluting the racing part of Gulfstream to the point where they can completely forget there's some horses competing there.

27 Jan 2011 1:44 PM
Mike Nyman Racing Marketing and Admissions

FYI.The $10 seat in Silks Simulcasting room is now $5. We heard the fans and we reacted. We are committed to doing the right thing for the customer. My motto is "Changing the Racetrack Culture One Customer at a Time" Stop by and see me any time. I am always reaching out to all of the customers and welcome any and all input.

Mike Nyman Racing Marketing and Admissons  

27 Jan 2011 9:54 PM
steve from st louis

You can't be all things to all people BUT if you're a racetrack, you sure damn well better take care of racing fans first before you hope to attract a new crowd.

Yes, racetrackers are an older demographic than tracks are targeting with their racinos, but if you don't capture the die-hard fan first, you sure aren't going to grow by attracting the casual fan. Getting 20 somethings to drink 'till they're drunk with any track's "Party in the Park" will just cause added problems when they are leaving the parking lot and not rushing to the wagering windows.

28 Jan 2011 1:51 PM
DEEJAYCEE

eric: one question : while at gulfstream, did you even once open your eyes and see the ruination of one of the finest racing facilities in the country ? stronach has't been right in florida, maryland, ohio, california or ANYWHERE else !!!! when will GP next host the Breeder's Cup ?? {only a multi million dollar impact on local economy} you've obviously never subscribed to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it mentality" as a florida resident, i spent many a day at the old gulfstream as well as attending all three of their Breeder's Cups. if you think that any of the smoke and mirrors that this guy has thrown at racing comes within a light year of Easy Goer and Sunday Silence roaring down the stretch, then you, my friend are another one who doesn't know which end of a horse eats !

28 Jan 2011 3:13 PM
C Bea

C Bea, not one penny of taxpayer money bult the Patriot's Gillette Stadium...owner Robert Kraft built it himself in 2002, plus 72 million in payback to state for road and infrastructure improvements...

Rachel - your single example may be true but it is clearly the exception these days. There were 13 stadiums built with 50% or more public money between 1989 and 2001.  Through 2006 spending on new Sports Stadiums cost taxpayers $7-billion. A typical sports facility costs local taxpayers more than $10 million a year.

To my point where would racing be if we had taxpayers paying $10-million per year to keep our facilities current. Or how much more competitive would our facilities be if alternatives weren't subsidized they way that they are?

28 Jan 2011 10:55 PM
Terri Z

Gulfstream Park is indeed a beautiful venue to enjoy horse racing. It attracts a much younger crowd than Calder.

And it attracts a talented field of horses, trainers, and jockeys.

The management is responsive to customer complaints. They also have initiated a 7 am breakfast with a trainer or jockey on Saturday. And the public is invited to watch the horses work out with the clocker.

The only drawback is the lack of an adequate seating at the track; this makes going to the Fla Derby a difficult experience much like NY subways during rush hour.

In comparison, Calder Race Track, owned by Twin Spires has poor management of horse racing. There is no longer any live handicapping prior to each race; one must get there early for handicapping prior to the start of racing. There has been nonfunctioning tote boards outside for placing bets (near the paddock). Whenever, I bring up these issues with track officals or track employees nothing gets addressed.

Calder has a lovely indoor seating area for owners which is open to the public to purchase seating. In the previous years, those seats were from $5 to $20 depending upon the level of stakes; now that same seating is $100 and is mostly empty. They don't even effectively promote horse racing at Calder; after 2 Calder Race Track Florida breds (Big Drama and Awesome Feather)won the Breeders Cup, there were no banners, announcements, or advertisements about this.

Twin Spires officals seem unconcerned with horse racing and more concerned with the casino.

29 Jan 2011 12:35 AM
Amy

Great article, and it touches a nerve. I hate to critize the two tracks in Maine (Scarborough Downs & Bangor Raceway), both harness tracks, BUT, they are dismal. I know, I know, Maine's horsemen are hanging on by a thread, and trying hard, but in today's glitzy's age, the tracks need to be clean, comfortable, with amenities. It was so cold at Scarborough, last Dec., that I didn't even take my coat off! There is a tiny restaurant, with few choices, and a small bar. Well, small, because so few people attend. Bangor is worse. At least Scarborough is clean.

Maine almost lost racing entirely, until Hollywood Slots rolled into town, and that is a decent facility. A % of profit goes to the track, and supposedly, a new barn (desperately needed) is to be built.

I rarely see people in their 20'3 or 30's either.

I went to Calder recently, and was very pleased, compared to what we have in Maine.

I don't have any answers. Sure wish I did.

29 Jan 2011 6:50 AM
Claude

Gulfstream is no longer an old fashion race track but it sure is a beautiful horse racing facility. Of course I liked the old grandstand and clubhouse but I am happy of what they built at Gulfstream and I enjoy each time I go.

29 Jan 2011 9:06 PM
EJMitchellKy

DEEJAYCEE, I hear you and I loved the old Gulfstream Park track. And I also hear the other criticisms about the seating. I didn't go into the clubhouse, so I would agree a tiered floor makes a big difference. I was there on a Monday so the crowd was modest. I can see how on Florida Derby day it would get congested.

Having said that, do you really need seating for 13,000 during the rest of the meet? With eyes wide open I look around and see: attendance at all racetracks down, handle down, and Thoroughbred racing facing a lot more competition from other forms of entertainment. Racing can't keep the old facilities and expect growth. If the choice is to do nothing and wait for a resurgence in the sport or try something new to attract fans, I would try something new.

If you really want to see an innovative track that is outshining all the others, go to Woodbine. A bright and clean facility, good racing surfaces, and good customer service.

30 Jan 2011 10:21 PM
C Bea

Eric,

I agree with your assessment of Woodbine. Clearly one of the class operations in our sport anywhere. Perhaps the Woodbine model should be investigated further by both regulators, track owners and horsemen.

30 Jan 2011 11:18 PM
Chris

I have worked at a racetrack for 15 years, and I have heard every complaint.

Horse players don't want to pay $20 by the time they get to their seat, let alone tipping employees, buying very expensive food and drink, etc. Then they see poker players and slot players have the red carpet rolled out for them. How is that fair? They are all gamblers right? And many horseplayers attend the track daily...talk about customer loyalty!

The horse players deserve to be greeted with smiling faces and excellent service, which unfortunately isn't happening much. I do my very best but not many others do.

The bottom line is that the product is getting worse, yet all the prices are going up, especially with the racing forms.

On a side note, Pedigree Ann is one of my favorite posters. I think it's the same Pedigree Ann who told anyone who would listen ten years ago that Unbridled's Song progeny were weak-boned, and boy was she right! This woman knows her stuff and her opinions should be respected.

31 Jan 2011 1:48 PM
EJMitchellKy

C Bea, Good point about the subsidizing of sports stadiums and arenas. I used to work for the Sports Business Journal covering facilities and got to visit the Staples Center while it was being completed plus Conseco Fieldhouse, Pepsi Center and Philips Arena. Every time I walked into a track, I think of the amenities stadiums and arenas now offer--better food, better seating, and better customer service.

03 Feb 2011 8:25 AM
EJMitchellKy

Be sure to read W.S. McGee's rebuttal of my column. He makes some good points. Read it on "The Racing Hub" blog.

11 Feb 2011 8:39 AM

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