Gulfstream Turns a Corner With GP West Meet

Officials happy with field sizes, handle in first season handling new Florida stand.

If this fall’s Gulfstream Park West meet  were an election, Gulfstream Park and its parent cpmpany, The Stronach Group, might already be able to declare victory.

Gulfstream is almost halfway through the new meet, which it is holding at its South Florida neighbor previously known as Calder Casino & Race Course. Gulfstream vice president of racing P.J. Campo said he is pleased with the meet’s average fields of 8.8 starters per race and daily all-sources pari-mutuel handle of $2.5 million.

He said Gulfstream believes it has “turned a corner” in showing it can conduct racing 52 weeks a year.

Gulfstream and The Stronach Group are operating the 44-day meet under a lease they signed this July 1 with Calder and its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc. Calder, still the track’s official name, is in Miami Gardens, eight miles west of Gulfstream in Hallandale Beach.

The Gulfstream Park West field size and handle numbers are through Oct. 31, the meet’s  20th day, and are based on a review of Equibase  Co. charts. In October, those numbers were among the best for Thoroughbred tracks in the United States.

That continues the trend of Gulfstream’s July 1-Oct. 4 summer meet, which followed 12 tense months of head-to-head racing between Calder and Gulfstream. Meanwhile, numerous  horsemen and fans  are saying they like the change in management from Calder to Gulfstream and the refurbishing that Gulfstream has done at Calder.

Campo expects that will make it easier for Gulfstream to convince  trainers who spend winters racing at Gulfstream and the remainder of  the year in northern states to keep some horses in South Florida year-round. That would make the Gulfstream program more attractive to bettors, leading to more handle and higher purses that would benefit Gulfstream and South Florida’s year-round trainers and owners.

Gulfstream expects its purses will average between $220,000 and $250,000 per day at the Gulfstream Park West meet, similar to its summer meet.

Handle Trends

Breakdowns for live and off-site betting on the Gulfstream Park West meet are not readily available. One major source of handle has been the simulcast operation at Gulfstream.

Gulfstream’s three-month summer meet had averages of 9.2 starters per race and about $3.5 million in daily all-sources handle.

From July 2013 through June 2014, Gulfstream and Calder raced head-to-head on weekends amid a bitter dispute over racing dates. During the last two weeks in June, daily average handles were about $800,000 at Calder and about $3 million at Gulfstream.

The Gulfstream Park West October average handle of $2.5 million is about $1 million more than Calder’s numbers in recent Octobers prior to last year’s head-to-head racing.

“We are pleased with the numbers so far at Gulfstream Park West,” Campo said. “We didn’t know what to expect. It was a new meet with a new name at a different track.

On many days, Gulfstream Park West’s field sizes have been  he highest among major U.S. tracks. On most days, handle has trailed only Belmont Park, Santa Anita Park, and Keeneland.

For its past two winter meets, Gulfstream has had average daily all-sources handle of $8.5 million. It will open its 2014-15 winter meet Dec. 6.

Happy Horsemen

This summer at Calder, Gulfstream and The Stronach Group carried out a $2.5 million refurbishing of 15 barns, the turf course, and portions of the ground floor of Calder's grandstand. That is the seven-floor building's only floor that is open to the public.

Because of  those changes, it has been hard to find a trainer or owner who is not happy with the racing or with the facilities, said Phil Combest, a trainer/owner who is president of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

“The main track (at  Calder) is still one of the best in the country,” said trainer/owner Bill Kaplan. “Gulfstream has done a great job in getting the turf course ready for this meet.”

Kaplan is among about 40 trainers who in mid-2013 moved their stables from Calder to Gulfstream amid ongoing disputes between CDI and the Florida HBPA.

The Gulfstream Park West meet began Oct. 8 and will extend through Nov. 30. It is part of a six-year agreement that the tracks and their parent companies signed July 1, ending their head-to-head racing. CDI continues to own all of Calder and continues to operate its casino.

A Florida law requires a pari-mutuel facility to have at least 40 live programs a year to retain its casino license. For that  reason, Gulfstream will continue to have 10 months of racing at its track and two months at Calder.

November Forecast

Campo said he expects handle will grow and that field sizes will at least stay in the nine-starters-per-race range during November. “We are running five or six days a week at Gulfstream Park West, so you might expect field sizes would be a bit lower than in the summer,” he said.

Campo noted that over the next several weeks a growing number of trainers who spend most of the year in northern states will be sending more horses to South Florida for late fall and winter racing. That list includes Chad Brown, Christophe  Clement, Kiaran McLaughlin, and Joe Orseno.

Todd Pletcher already has some horses at Palm Beach Downs, and will soon bring a full winter squad to that training facility. Through Oct. 31, he has five wins at Gulfstream Park West and is tied for fifth in the trainer standings.

Marcus Vitale, who leads trainers with 10 wins, has decided to keep his stable at that track year-round. For several years, he has spent summers at  Monmouth Park and the remainder of the year in South Florida.

(Gulfstream is) doing everything the right way, so there is no reason not to stay here," Vitale said. “If I want ro run a horse in a stakes in another state, I can always ship out.”

Gulfstream is calling the meet the "Fall Turf Festival." It has 10 races per day, usually with three or four on turf. Because of weather, Gulfstream is one of a limited number of U.S. tracks that can have turf racing in November. That is among factors that are inducing trainers to start shipping horses in, and likely will attract additional wagering.

In its simulcasts and marketing, Gulfstream is avoiding use of the Calder name, which is much less familiar than Gulfstream’s with bettors around the country.

Even though Gulfstream is pleased with results for its inaugural Gulfstream Park West meet, Campo  said it has not decided if October and November will be its permanent months. Combest said he has heard Gulfstream might consider racing one month at Calder in the fall and one month in late spring or early summer.

That would give Gulfstream‘s track two breaks in its schedule and enable it to avoid racing for 10 consecutive months.