by Jim Freer
Gulfstream Park reported its all-sources pari-mutuel handle is down about 5% and on-track handle off 30% year-to-date through early March.
Track president and general manager Bill Murphy, during a March 8 meeting with the media, cited the economy and weather in and outside Florida for the declines. He said the on-track handle figure would be up about 7% from 2007 if on-track bets were combined with handle from the simulcast of Gulfstream races at nearby Calder Race Course and The Isle Racing & Casino at Pompano Park.
Under new state rules, Calder and harness track Pompano are taking Gulfstream’s signal for the first time this year. They are joining Tampa Bay Downs and Greyhound tracks and jai-alai frontons more than 50 miles from Gulfstream in taking inter-track wagers on Gulfstream races. Murphy would not disclose 2008 handle numbers, including those for Gulfstream races at Calder and Pompano.
Gulfstream, which is owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., last year said its average daily all-sources handle was $8.3 million for its 2007 meet. Data from The Jockey Club Information Systems, which doesn't include separate pool wagering, show Gulfstream’s average daily all-sources handle was $6,951,077 through March 9 of this year; last year, the figure was $7,134,921.
Unlike in 2007, the Gulfstream signal isn’t available to Youbet.com and TVG customers.
“A lot of why we are down (in handle) is due to the economy and the weather,” Murphy said.
This year’s loss of the main parking lot, due to construction of a retail complex, is hurting attendance and handle, he said. Also, through March 8, rain had forced Gulfstream to move 48 races from turf to dirt. For all of last year, Gulfstream took 13 races off the turf.
Even with scratches, Gulfstream’s average field size has been about 9.0 this year, Murphy said. For all of last year, average field size was 8.5.
Gulfstream, which offers free admission, does not take official attendance and this year is not releasing estimates. It estimated its average daily attendance was 5,472 last year.
In a Feb. 29 conference call, MEC chief operating officer Ron Charles said Gulfstream attendance and on-track handle are down, “and we continue to be disappointed with the fact that we are unable to allow people to get people to the racetrack and conveniently park.”
Gulfstream this year built a new parking lot on the south side of its property, but construction on the west side, adjacent to Federal Highway, has made some passers-by uncertain whether the track and its casino are open.
MEC has a February 2009 target date for opening a 70-store retail complex, part of the $170-million first phase of its mixed-use The Village at Gulfstream Park. Offices and condominiums are part of the plan, for which MEC and joint venture partner Forest City Enterprises have not announced dates for starting construction.
Murphy said Gulfstream expects the opening of the retail complex will attract more racing fans and casino patrons, thus leading to pick-ups in handle and slot-machine play next year.
The Florida legislature is considering a bill that would reduce that tax rate on slot machines to 35% at pari-mutuel facilities in Broward and in Miami-Dade counties. The current 50% state tax rate on slots revenue at Gulfstream is “ridiculous,” Murphy said. “Under the current situation, improvement or expansion (of Gulfstream’s casino) is impossible,” he said.
Gulfstream and other South Florida pari-mutuel outlets maintain that a lower tax rate would leave them more money to upgrade casino facilities and for marketing. That would generate higher slots revenue that would offset the lower tax rate, they claim.
Gulfstream’s slots play, total and per machine, has been lower than at Pompano and at Mardi Gras Racetrack and Gaming, a Greyhound track. However, Gulfstream‘s $104.7 million in slots play for this year’s first two months was 16% higher than the $90.4 million for last year’s first two months. A better series of promotions and prizes is a main reason, Murphy said.
Gulfstream competes with the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s casinos. This year, the Seminoles are making their first payments of a portion of slots revenue to the state and are upgrading from Class II bingo-style machines to Class III Las Vegas-style machines like those at Gulfstream.