Focus on the Experience - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the December 8, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Gulfstream Park in South Florida has its eye on hosting another Breeders’ Cup World Championships and will invest hundreds of millions toward making it happen.

The Hallandale Beach, Fla., track has a history with racing’s championship series, having held the event in 1989, 1992, and 1999. Consideration of further Florida Breeders’ Cups collapsed with the Gulfstream Park grandstand in 2004, when owner Frank Stronach completely demolished and rebuilt the track. The vision at the time was to create a smaller venue more in line with today’s live attendance and provide adjacent retail to attract a greater variety of people. The $170 million renovation took the grandstand from a 20,000-seat capacity down to about 1,000. The total seating capacity of the new track, including restaurants and seating around the walking ring, was 5,000.

Since the renovation, changes have been made that have increased the seating, but at levels nowhere close to its former capacity.

Stronach has enjoyed having the Breeders’ Cup in a regular rotation at Santa Anita Park (it will be there again in 2013), but now he wants the event back in Florida.

In order to lure the Breeders’ Cup to the Sunshine State, the track has announced plans to build two new hotels facing the racetrack on either side of the existing grandstand and expand the seating capacity to 50,000, which would include table-side restaurant viewing and luxury suites. The cost has not been disclosed but will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Since we haven’t been privy to any blueprints, we wonder how the 50,000 seats are going to be configured; how many are actually grandstand seats versus restaurant tables, luxury suites, and standing room only? Belmont Park’s grandstand, for instance, has a 30,000-seat capacity.

In order to accommodate the desire for Breeders’ Cup to sell tickets to a broad range of customers, it seems temporary seating may still be required for Gulfstream to handle a Championships crowd—which raises another question.

While Gulfstream Park and Breeders’ Cup have an eye on capacity, we hope they keep as sharp an eye on amenities. A racing fan may be thrilled to have a seat at the Championships, but that experience will quickly sour if there is no ready access to food, drink, restrooms, and mutuel windows. Just ask some of the fans who attended the Breeders’ Cup at Lone Star Park.

The event at Grand Prairie, Texas, was hailed as a success, but many fans vented afterward about long traffic lines, overflowing Porta Potties, concessions stands that ran out, and slow, inexperienced mutuel tellers.

So we offer a reminder that hosting the Championships requires more than providing a seat. In a sport that struggles daily to promote itself over the clamor of college and professional sports, the focus should be on the experience. A bad view of the racetrack can be mitigated with a decent meal, a cold libation, and access to a clean restroom.

The plans proposed by Gulfstream Park sound grand. Here’s hoping the improvements stretch far beyond just getting people into the racetrack and provide an entertaining, enjoyable experience that will make folks come back for more—and bring all their friends. 

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