It is fair to say that Gulfstream Park president Scott Savin expected some glitches when the track opened for its transitional meet on Monday. But even he could not have been prepared for what happened in the first race.
As a result of a mechanical malfunction with the tractor that removes the starting gate from its position in two-turn races, the gate remained in place until the horses had approached the second turn, causing the outriders to pull up the field and the race to be declared a "no contest."
"The only thing that saved me was that I looked out from my trailer and realized it wasn't high enough to jump from," Savin said with a grin, referring to the trailer office he is using while Gulfstream's clubhouse, including offices, is rebuilt. "It's not exactly the way you want to start a race meet."
The 81-day racing season figured to be a challenging one following the razing of virtually all existing structures and the complete refurbishing of the racing surfaces. Patrons are being accommodated in tents and a large outdoor area while construction continues on the new structure expected to be ready for next year's meet.
Savin and his customer service team heard from many of the 6,438 patrons in attendance. The customers' issues included a shortage of outdoor wagering terminals, uncertainty of how to find desired simulcasting signals, inability to view a toteboard from many locations, and frustration over lack of access to the wagering pavilion.
"There were a lot of questions we didn't anticipate," Savin said. "But realistically, anytime you make enormous changes there will be growing pains. This was a massive undertaking and we hope patrons will be patient. All we can do is to try to fix the problems and try to make it better every day."
Some things that Savin expects to fix immediately are the logistical problems that caused the failure of some jockey equipment to arrive in the paddock before the start of the second race. Gulfstream left in place the existing jockey's room adjacent to the former paddock area, a significant distance from the new location of the new paddock and walking ring.
As a result, the start of the second race was delayed by 11 minutes while valets scrambled for a saddle and whip that had inadvertently been returned to the jockey's room after the first race. That delay caused Gulfstream to cancel the 10th and final race on the card for fear of darkness.
"Our plan is to have an auxiliary jockey's room for equipment storage near the new paddock, and our goal is to have it in place by next week," Savin said, adding that nine races per day rather than the scheduled 10 will be carded until the room is ready.
Despite the cancellation of two races and other problems, many patrons seemed appreciative of the effort. "You've got to expect some things like that," said Don Fuller, who with wife Nancy has been traveling to Gulfstream from their home in Birmingham, Alabama each winter for 12 years. Fuller recounted some problems common to patrons -- a shortage of seating and long lines at the mutuel windows -- but said it will not prevent him from coming back when racing resumes Thursday.
Savin and his team hope so. "I'm just glad we have 48 hours to address all of these concerns," Savin said.