Gulfstream Park opened for its 2006 live race meet Wednesday, its palatial new clubhouse only partially completed and its patron facilities falling short of management's expectations when the project was begun nearly two years ago.
With capacity lacking due to ongoing construction that has kept closed the second and third floor of the clubhouse at least through the end of January, Gulfstream officials had privately hoped many patrons would instead opt to watch its races at neighboring Calder Race Course. Located about eight miles west, Calder was open for simulcasting for the first time as part of a Dec. 9 pact between the two tracks.
Still, about 1,000 people were at Calder while an estimated 5,150 patrons saw firsthand what Gulfstream president Scott Savin called "A new paradigm of racing."
Many, while optimistic for the track's completion, seemed to miss the way things were.
"This place is structured for a casino, not a racetrack," said Harriet from Tonawanda, N.Y., who said she has come to Gulfstream's opening days for about 20 years. "I know it's not ready yet, but it really misses a grandstand. It doesn't seem right that anywhere you go you have to pay for the privilege of losing money."
The lack of a traditional grandstand seating area was a common complaint among patrons who coped with the transitional "tent city" meet last year.
Although patrons may enter the track for free, virtually all of Gulfstream's seating comes with charges. Reserved seats facing the track on the second floor cost $10 as does admission to either of the large first floor simulcasting rooms.
The issue will remain even once the building is completed: each of the clubs and restaurants on the upper two floors will have either seating charges and/or food and beverage minimums.
"If you're a horseplayer you want to be able to sit down and relax without having to pay $10," said Vinnie from Connecticut, also a long-time Gulfstream patron. "I don't want to have to pay just for the right to pay again to get something to eat or drink. And what will they do when it rains? I want the old track back."
He won't be getting it. "This is the new presentation of racing, and I think patrons will adjust to it," said Savin. "We think this is the model that other tracks will follow. There is no more revolutionary way to present racing."
Calling the track the Taj Mahal of racing, Savin added, "Magna Entertainment (Corp.) invested over $150 million in this place, so $10 is well worth it."
As compared to last year's opening day when long lines for wagering, concessions, and bathrooms were the norm, most operations seemed smooth on opening day. Savin and Magna vice chairman Dennis Mills, both of whom spent much of the day in the patron areas, did hear from customers about various issues.
"Everything system-wide worked, but like anything new there were going to be glitches here and there," noted Savin, who said that the day also marked the first time the majority of the employees had been in the building.
With Gulfstream closed on both Thursday and Friday, Savin said his staff would be able to rectify all of the problems before Saturday's expected large crowd. "Ninety-nine percent of the issues are addressable," he said.
One issue that will not and cannot be addressed is the fairly steep ramp leading from the saddling enclosure to the walking ring. While some horsemen and jockeys complained about it – "If a horse rears while going up the ramp he's going to wind up on his back," said trainer Peter Walder – Savin said that the Americans With Disabilities Act requires the ramp be of a certain pitch to accommodate wheelchair users.
"It has a lot of potential and it might be great when it's finished," said patron Kathy Dillon of New York, summing up the mood. "But it's not comfortable today."