Butt Out

The rumors of Gulfstream Park's demise, happily, are vastly exaggerated.

On a recent family visit to Florida, I worked up the nerve to ask my brother if he would humor me and take us on a cross-Broward County journey to see Florida's flagship racetrack. Having scanned various critiques of the "New Gulfstream" as well as having carefully cultivated my own brand of cynicism, expectations were minimal.

In the interests of full disclosure, the $2.40 I made betting has nothing to do with the favorable impression the facility made upon me. Also, I went as a "civilian," not as a member of the press that entitles one to countless amenities.

Although it was mid-card on a Friday afternoon, parking was effortless, and after a short walk, we came right up on the walking ring, situated in the middle of the horseshoe-shaped edifice that is the New Gulfstream. By the way, parking and admission to the track are free. A small program costs a buck.

Much of the criticism of Gulfstream centers around two areas: a perceived lack of seating, and the paddock. About the latter, people are crying, "the horses are saddled in a tunnel," "there's no place for the owners to stand," "you can't see the jockeys get instructions from trainers." The paddock has gotten more press coverage than a Dick Cheney hunting trip.

Let's all take a deep breath here. First, the folks taking advantage of the easily accessible, comfortable rows of stadium seating that ring the paddock apparently weren't aware of the supposed lack of chairs where they could enjoy Florida's delightful winter sun. They watched the horses parade around the ring several times, and talked up their choices.

Yes, the owners and other swells are confined to a railed-off area at the inside of the ring. So what? And yes, the horses are saddled in a tunnel before being led into the paddock. Big deal. Is your handicapping system based on how a horse reacts to having the saddle cinched around his girth? For the record, riders get their instructions and a leg up in the walking ring, in full view of the assembled.

We walked from the paddock to the track apron in approximately 20 seconds. There, we found glass tables ringed by cushioned chairs, and had no trouble finding unoccupied ones from which to study the toteboard. Betting windows were nearby, lines were short, and roving bet-takers with portable tote equipment were ubiquitous.

Looking behind us, it was disorienting at first to find no grandstand. No big, dank, drafty, unoccupied grandstand with pigeons flying from rafter to rafter looking to hawk leftover pretzel chunks. So, for the people who like to sit high up and watch the races through binoculars, the New Gulfstream will be a disappointment.

But let's face reality. People don't go to the races like they used to, and, once there, they don't watch the races like they used to. In grandstands around the country that have monitors at the seats, the overwhelming number of attendees watch the races on the monitors.
Back at Gulfstream, the patrons seemed to me very content to hang out on the apron. For those who require an elevated view, a few rows of box seats are available for a price. Or they can get a table in the Ten Palms restaurant that looks out over the racetrack, much along the lines of the Frontrunners eatery at Santa Anita.

Situated between the paddock and the racetrack are two large, Las Vegas sports book-style rooms for those not interested in furthering their tans. These areas are attractive and appointed with individual desks. Five bucks gets you a private station situated below state-of-the-art TV monitors that pump in races from as many racetracks as you can handle. Ten bucks buys you a work area with your own desktop monitor.

Private suites are available for lease by the day, week, or meet. Another restaurant and a bar/club were scheduled to open just after our visit.

Could Gulfstream be better? Sure it could. I'd love to see one or two sections of a grandstand built in classic throwback style, as are new baseball stadiums today. But when a guy is spending a couple-hundred-million dollars, he gets to decide what to include and what to toss.

You might not like the attendance trends in live horse racing, or the turns taken by racetracks in figuring how to go forward to accommodate lesser demand. But don't blame Frank Stronach for dynamiting the grandstand. If you wanted him to keep it around, you should have put your butt in it more frequently.