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Gulfstream Park winning Turf Wars

Gulfstream Park 615 X 400
Photo: Eclipse Spotswire
I think we all knew when Gulfstream Park applied for summer racing dates that things were likely to get really ugly in South Florida. Calder has had the monopoly on summer racing in the Sunshine State for as long as most can remember, but the addition of a Gulfstream summer/fall meet has meant that the two tracks, which are only about 10 miles apart, have been racing head-to-head this summer. Battle lines were quickly drawn in an effort to gain the upper hand on one another, but despite the ominous atmosphere that loomed over the area heading into summer, things have been rather quiet and it has been business as usual.
 
 
Heading into the Labor Day weekend, the two tracks had run opposed to one another on 16 days with each track having carded a total of 140 races combined on those dates. Though the average field size was comparable, the difference in total handle was night and day. On days when both tracks were operating live racing, Gulfstream’s total handle nearly doubled that of Calder with the Stronach owned track raking in an average on $2.4 million and the Churchill Downs, Inc. owned track taking in an average of $1.2 million.
 
 
Before the racing meets began, Calder announced that it was putting into effect a restrictive access policy which would forbid horses stabled at Calder to re-enter the grounds if they left to compete across town at Gulfstream. Calder made yet another unpopular move when officials announced that effective August 30 there would be a 12% reduction in overnight purses. Calder Vice President and General Manager of Racing John Marshall said the cuts were triggered by loss in revenue, due partly to the fact that its rival also serves as a host facility for in-state simulcast wagering.
 
 
Be that as it may, Calder is not doing itself any favors by enacting unpopular policies that will ultimately drive both horsemen and racing fans away. It really doesn't come as a surprise that the Churchill Downs Inc. owned Calder Race Course is making unpopular decisions given the response to several decisions on CDI's part in relation to the Kentucky Derby and new points system. To further aggravate the situation, for every unpopular move Calder makes, Gulfstream counters with popular moves. For its June 25 card, the last racing date of the 2012-2013 Championship meet, Gulfstream Park President Tim Ritvo increased the purse of each race by $4,000 and awarded each starter, regardless of placement, $1,000 just for running. Palm Meadows was reopened and $500 bonuses were implemented to offset trainer costs. The $500 bonus went into effect July 13, but in order to receive the bonus, the trainer must both enter and run their horse and their horse must be stabled at Gulfstream at the time of entry. The bonus is not a purse increase but a way to offset the rising costs of workers’ compensation insurance, shavings, feed and other expenses.
 
 
Offering these various incentives and reopening Palm Meadows has meant that Gulfstream Park has taken a hit, too, but Ritvo stated that the track is losing less during the summer months by conducting a live meet than it would have without the live meet. He stressed that committing to the long term health of the sport and trying to reinvent a solid summer racing program meant that the track would have to take a hit. The hit, he says, is necessary in that you have to spend money in order to make money. I reckon that’s easy to say when you have as much money to work with as he does.
 
 
To add insult to injury to the already down on its luck Calder Race Course, the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association (FTBOA) awarded Gulfstream the honor of hosting the 2014 Florida Sire Stakes, formerly the Florida Stallion Stakes. FTBOA CEO Lonny Powell was impressed with the presentation Ritvo put together that emphasized economic and marketing related considerations. Powell felt that Ritvo truly had the best interests of the Florida breeders and owners in mind and that along with the quality of the Gulfstream facilities tipped the scales in Gulfstream’s favor. It doesn’t hurt that the move from Calder, where the series has been run for the past 32 years, to Gulfstream meant a purse hike of $300,000. Executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association Kent Stirling also feels that the move will result in better marketing and promotion for the event, which he says has been struggling, but that comes as no surprise when the man behind the curtain has enough money to run a small country for a decade.
 
 
Stirling’s faith in Gulfstream’s marketing abilities comes in large part from the success of last year’s Claiming Crown which was run at the South Florida track for the very first time this past winter. It turned out to be a record setting year for the Series and was so successful that Gulfstream was able to broker a deal to keep the Claiming Crown at its South Florida facility through 2015. This year’s event will feature races worth a record $1 million in purses and the addition of the mile and a sixteenth $110,000 Iron Lady for fillies and mares that have started for a claiming price of $7,500 or less since January 1, 2012. The Iron Lady is in addition to the seven other Claiming Crown races.
 
 
Also being held at Gulfstream Park for the second consecutive year are the Eclipse Awards, which will be held on January 18 in the Sport of Kings theatre. The prestigious event will be the culmination of a day of fantastic racing as the 12th edition of the Sunshine Millions series will once again lead up to the awards. The six stakes races that comprise the Sunshine Millions series will be worth $1.3 million this year and will be part of a record $10.75 million stakes program that includes a total of 61 stakes races (34 graded) with 10 existing stakes receiving purse increases.
 
 
The drama unfolding between the two South Florida tracks so far has not been as explosive as initially feared, but the conflict is far from over and nowhere near being solved. The general consensus among racing fans is that Frank Stronach is becoming as greedy and grasping as Elizabeth Woodville and her Rivers relatives were perceived to be. The Breeders’ Cup is parked indefinitely at Stronach Group owned Santa Anita Park with plans and renovations in the works to lure the prestigious event back to Gulfstream, where the Eclipse Awards, Claiming Crown, Sunshine Millions, and Florida Sire Stakes are currently being held.
 
 
I consider Gulfstream Park to be my "home track" since the lovely state of Georgia right now does not participate in any form in horse racing. I completely fell in love with Gulfstream, so I maybe a bit biased when I say that I'm on Team Gulfstream. Frank Stronach has money and why not let him use it to better our sport? I personally have not been to Calder, but if even half of what I have heard is true, then the track has certainly seen better days. Horsemen have complained that the purses at Calder have become stagnant, and the Florida Sire Stakes had the potential to be a great series as a stepping stone towards a championship. As it stands, it has produced six Eclipse champions, but with better marketing and promotion along with larger purses, the number of champions could be increased drastically. Additionally, every step Calder has tried to take in this conflict seems to have been detrimental for the horsemen and beneficial, perhaps only in the short term, for the track itself; whereas Stronach owned Gulfstream Park genuinely seems to be trying to do what's best for both the horsemen and the sport in general.
 
 
Right now horsemen are going to where the money and prestige is, and during the summer months, that is Saratoga and Del Mar. The Stronach Group owned Gulfstream Park has the funding and marketing skills to lure some of the top trainers and their blue-blooded runners to South Florida during the summer. Diluting the quality of racing is a non-issue. Before Gulfstream began its summer meet, Calder was already conducting live racing during that time. Since Calder continuously shoots itself in the foot when it comes to its relationship with the horsemen and some of its premier events have already been moved across town, even if it’s only temporary for now, a move to shut it down should be made. In running head-to-head, Gulfstream has already proved that it can be the more successful of the two during the summer. Even though this is the inaugural summer meet, the track has come out with guns blazing and all cylinders firing. The success is already there, so let Gulfstream run with it and bring summer racing in Florida into the present and on into the future. 

 

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Older Comments about Gulfstream Park winning Turf Wars...

With Gulfstream's proximity to the ocean, it's really not so bad there. Usually you can count on a breeze to lessen the heat. In my opinion, the biggest obstacle to racing during the summer in Florida is the tropical systems that usually go through the area (although things have been quiet on that front this year).
Personally, I'd like to see Calder close, Hialeah make a comeback, and GP & Hia can go back to trading winter dates like they used to. Racing in FL in the summer is like racing in NY in the winter, there's no common sense to it and it's too hard on the horses - I never understood how FL managed to keep three track going for so long in such close proximity. Just fold your hand and step away from the table, Calder, GP & Hia were there first anyway.
Go Gulfstream & Tim!
At the rate they're going, Laurie, it will only be a few years at most. Along with having no interest in gaining and keeping fans, CDI/Calder clearly has no interest in keeping the horsemen happy either. If they lose their racing base, then there's no point in them being open anyway. Gulfstream is only 10 miles away. It's not like it's a long trip in order to gain options and bigger purses.
Nice article, Ashley. As Coordinator of the S. FL they've don Chapter of ThoroFan, let me say that Gulfstream has welcomed our group with open arms. Calder was indifferent and had no interest in our fan group. Calder/CDI has no interest in gaining or keeping fans. There haven't been impovements - other than the card room - in decades. It will be interesting to see how long Calder stays in business. Anybody want to make a bet? If so, you'll find me at Gulfstream.

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