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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.