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Another New Look for Gulfstream

Gulfstream officials said they have listened to patrons and made changes.

Gulfstream Park will have still another new look when it opens its season Jan. 3, 2008, and track president and general manager Bill Murphy says the latest changes come “from listening to what people wanted.”

Gulfstream will have 22 new mezzanine-level boxes for owners, more betting windows, and a better view of the track for core fans in the North Park area near the sixteenth pole. The 89-day meet at the facility now called Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino runs through April 20. Gulfstream is working out details for Calder Race Course to simulcast its races, Murphy said.

Gulfstream is reducing its number of stadium-style seats facing the track from about 1,000 to 800. It will have 22 four-seat boxes at the top level of its mezzanine. Each box will have Internet access, personalized betting terminals, phone service, waiter service, granite countertops, and what Gulfstream calls “plush seating.” Gulfstream hopes to lease each box on a season-by-season basis. It will disclose pricing only to callers.

Gulfstream has elevated its North Park area, bringing in 50,000 cubic yards of dirt, to provide a better view of races for fans, and added a tiki bar Murphy says will create “a beach-like atmosphere.” It has removed bleacher seats, which were little-used and blocked other views in the popular area that can hold about 2,000 fans.

Gulfstream has expanded North Park’s betting stations from 20 to 38, and will have more live teller stations. “These are all changes (Magna Entertainment Corp. chairman) Frank Stronach decided to make based on what our fans want,” Murphy said.

In another change from the 2007 season, Christine Lee’s has replaced the Chase restaurant on the building’s third floor. Leases of third-floor luxury suites are available on a per-day and season basis.

The Hallandale Beach, Fla., track also is cutting its number of slot machines from about 1,200 to 823. It will have a new mix featuring video poker that management believes will produce improvement in casino revenues that parent company MEC’s earnings releases have termed “disappointing.”

Horsemen, horse players, and slots players will find Gulfstream in the midst of construction--in the former main parking lot area west of the clubhouse/casino. MEC and joint venture partner Forest City Enterprises are beginning their planned “The Villages at Gulfstream Park” with a retail phase. The complex of 70 stores and restaurants is scheduled for completion early in 2009.

Gulfstream is adding a parking lot on its south side. With that lot and parking on the north side, Gulfstream will have space for 6,600 cars. Based on a fly-over, it had an estimated 6,800 cars on site for the 2007 Florida Derby (gr. I). Gulfstream will offer free and frequent shuttle bus service, Murphy said. Parking and admission will remain free.

Workers have put up foundations for several buildings near Gulfstream’s clubhouse and walking ring. A chain fence covered by a canvas is between the two areas. Any construction during training and racing hours will be at distances from the clubhouse and track area that will not disturb horses or be disruptive to fans, Murphy said.

In 2007, trainers saddled horses in the walking ring--in close view to fans in a circular seating area. In 2008, they will saddle horses in an adjacent enclosed area and parade them in the walking ring.

Gulfstream has altered its stakes schedule by spacing out its graded stakes rather than having four or more on some featured Saturdays. “Races like the Pan American Handicap should have a day of their own,” Murphy said. That grade III, 1 1/2-mile turf races for 4-year-olds and up is slated for April 5.

Gulfstream also is changing its calendar of 3-year-old prep races. The biggest switch is moving the grade III Holy Bull from late January to April 12, and increasing it from 1 1/8 to 1 3/16 miles. After Gulfstream put in its new 1 1/8-mile main track in 2005, it had three 1 1/8-mile preps--the Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth (gr. II), and Florida Derby. Moving the Holy Bull “gives owners a chance to earn graded stakes money three weeks before the Kentucky Derby,” Murphy said. 

The Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association supports the new Gulfstream calendar. “We believe that all the ingredients are in place for a very special race meeting,” Florida HBPA president Sam Gordon said.

Gulfstream opened its slots casino in November 2006. Its total slots betting and daily average win-per-machine have been lower than those at neighboring pari-mutuel facilities. Gulfstream in November began reducing its machines, from 1,200 to a planned 823. By Jan. 3, it also will have more video poker machines and “penny” machines in which each play is five cents or less.

Research indicates video poker is more popular than other slots games with horse bettors, and that low-denomination slots are more popular than dollar slots with many South Floridians, said Steve Calabro, MEC’s vice president of gaming.

Gulfstream has closed its ground-floor casino. It will reopen that room before Jan. 3 for simulcasting and with video poker. In its second-floor casino, Gulfstream is converting some slots to penny machines.

In October, Gulfstream had 1,103 machines with total play of $34.5 million, according to the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. For the first nine days of December, Gulfstream’s 516 machines had total play of $10.1 million. The December slots numbers, including play from part-year residents, are on pace with October’s full-month numbers.

Gulfstream’s revamped slots set-up and mix of machines should help cut losses, said Ryan Worst, a securities analyst at Brean Murray Carret in New York.

“Their slots rooms had a great emphasis on higher-denomination machines, and probably missed the market a little bit,” Worst said. “For local casinos, video poker is very popular. There probably is more cross-play between video poker and horse racing than with other slot games.”