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Gulfstream Park Handle Grew 4.2%

The South Florida racetrack bucked the national trend of declining handle.

Gulfstream Park ended its 2010 meet on April 24, and reported that its total handle grew 4.2% over 2009. The Hallandale, Fla., track reported  its total handle was $550.9 million this year, compared with $528.8 million in 2009.

Gulfstream reported these other breakdowns in wagering:

* On-track handle fell 1.0%, from $42.3 million to $41.9 million.
* inter-track wagering handle in Florida was down 0.6%, from $30.9 million to $30.8 million.
* intra-state wagering handle rose 5.0% percent, from $455.6 million to $478.3 million.

Gulfstream’s results ran counter to the overall declines in the industry. Total wagering at U.S. Thoroughbred tracks was down 10.4% in this year’s first quarter, compared with the same period last year, according to data that Equibase released on April 5.

“We had a strong performance, especially considering the adversity of the coldest January and February on record here (Miami-Fort Lauderdale),” Gulfstream president and general manager Ken Dunn told The Blood-Horse April 22. “Our numbers are a credit to our staff, our horsemen and our product.”

Dunn became Gulfstream president/general manager last November. From 1990 to 2008, he was president of Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens, Fla.

At Gulfstream, Dunn succeeded Bill Murphy who had been president/general manager since early 2007. After Murphy resigned at Gulfstream, he and several other racing industry officials formed consulting firm CI Solutions. Dunn’s six-month contract at Gulfstream ends on April 30, but he declined comment on whether he expects to be retained by MI Developments (MID), which is attempting to succeed Aurora, Ont.-based Magna Entertainment Corp. (MEC) as owner of Gulfstream. Instead he talked about plans for Gulfstream’s 2011 meet.

“Everyone knows that I am ‘an event guy,’” Dunn said, referring to the multiple-stakes Saturdays he emphasized at Calder and  Gulfstream’s 2010 schedule changes that created several Saturdays with three or more “themed” graded stakes.

One new event at Gulfstream this year was the Feb. 27 Fasig-Tipton Filly Festival, with three graded stakes for fillies and mares. In 2011, Dunn said he hopes to keep that event and have pre-race day marketing and race day events that feature women in racing and that history.

MID, the controlling shareholder of MEC, is waiting for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington, Del., to decide whether to permit it to acquire Gulfstream and several other tracks from MEC. Bankruptcy Court Judge Mary Walrath could issue a decision as soon as April 26. MEC has been under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since March 2009. With Frank Stronach as chairman of MEC and MID, the sale would in effect retain the ownership structure of Gulfstream.

Prospects of a sale loomed when Gulfstream opened its 2010 meet on Jan. 3, and there were other issues. Until Jan. 22, a contract dispute between TrackNet Media Group and the MidAtlantic Cooperative prevented Gulfstream from sending its signal to 17 racetracks in northeastern states. Amid that blackout, Gulfstream’s Interstate Wagering (ISW) handle was down 15.6% compared with the same period in 2009.

The MidAtlantic blackout and unseasonably heavy rains were reasons that Gulfstream handle numbers for this January and February were lower than in 2009. Gulfstream reported that it was forced to move 42 races off the turf this year, compared with 12 in 2009. The track, however, did not lose any full racing days this year while several northeastern tracks and Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif., cancelled several weekend cards due to inclement weather. On those days, Gulfstream had larger than usual shares of the national simulcast and Advance Deposit Wagering (ADW) markets.

Gulfstream’s handle also benefited, to an extent it cannot determine, from the Feb. 11 opening of The Village at Gulfstream Park. That outdoor mall, now with about 40 restaurants and retailers, is adjacent to Gulfstream’s clubhouse/casino building. The Village of Gulfstream Park is a joint venture of MEC and Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises. Under the proposed reorganization, MID would assume MEC’s ownership stake in the mall. With the mall open, 2010 was the first year since 2004 in which racing fans did not have to maneuver around construction work and equipment to enter and leave Gulfstream.

In 2010, as in 2009, Gulfstream’s revenues grew at its two casino rooms. An undetermined amount of this year’s increase was from mall patrons who took the short walk to the clubhouse/casino, Dunn said.

Data from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering show Gulfstream’s pre-tax slot machine revenues grew from $12.7 million during the first three months of 2009 to $15.4 million during the first three months of 2010. That was a 21.5% percent increase. Florida DPMW data show that Gulfstream’s poker revenues fell 4.4%—from $1,166,712 in 2009’s first quarter to $1,114,211 in this year’s first quarter.

The most publicized change at Gulfstream this year was moving the Florida Derby (gr. 1) from five weeks to six weeks ahead of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).

Dunn made that decision last November, with a goal of holding Gulfstream’s marquee race and undercard, with four graded stakes, on a Saturday when no other U.S. tracks were having their biggest stakes days. The switch to March 20 helped produce major increases in Florida Derby day handle. Gulfstream’s all-sources handle for the day was $21.1 million—a 14% increase over 2009. Live handle of $2.5 million was 24% higher than in 2009.

But a big focus of this year’s Florida Derby was the absence of Zayat Stables’ Eskendereya. The colt, who is the likely Kentucky Derby favorite, was an impressive winner of the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) at Gulfstream on Feb. 20. Eskendereya  was the highly touted Florida Derby favorite until March 15, when owner Ahmed Zayat decided to run him in the April 3 Wood Memorial (gr. I) at Aqueduct. Zayat said he preferred to run in a prep four weeks, rather than six weeks, ahead of the Kentucky Derby.

The Florida Derby was won by Robert LaPenta’s Ice Box, who is trained by Nick Zito.

“My view, for now, is to keep it (Florida Derby) six weeks ahead of the Kentucky Derby,” Dunn said. “The change this year helped in generating a schedule that produced a successful meet financially.”

He added: “We had a good 11-horse field in the Florida Derby, and an impressive winner who could be one of the Kentucky Derby favorites. Our meet was a showcase for a strong group of 3-year-olds.”