The new Tapeta surface at Gulfstream Park literally is an ecru-colored buffer between the turf and dirt tracks. Figuratively, it seems to be a buffer that has repelled horseplayers.
Since the current meet began two months ago, handle has dropped significantly. In studies made by Horse Racing Nation through comparable monthly periods in 2021 to 2022, it dropped 16 percent for December and 16 percent for January.
The biggest change since last winter has been the addition of the third surface. Where 47 percent of the January 2021 races were run on the dirt and 53 percent on the turf, last month’s breakdown was 38 percent dirt, 13 percent turf and 49 percent Tapeta.
Although there were other nuances in the statistics, some seasoned bettors at last week’s National Horseplayers Championship in Las Vegas said they have been repelled by the synthetic surface at Gulfstream. So has their money.
“I play Gulfstream every day of the year,” said Frank Mustari, a 10-time NHC participant from Des Plaines, Ill., who won a record $50,000 first prize last spring in the Grade One Gamble at Keeneland. “A very close friend of mine, I told him if Gulfstream does not get away from Tapeta, I will change circuits.”
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The wear and tear on the turf course was one reason Gulfstream executives made the decision to add a third surface last summer. So was the desire by horsemen to have something other than a sloppy main track to spin races taken off the turf.
“I think if their grass course could hold up to three, four or five races a day, I think that’s what they would prefer to have,” said Hall of Famer Steve Wolfson Jr., who lives in Ormond Beach, Fla., and has played in 14 NHCs, winning in 2003. “Two Tapeta, not five. If they can solve that, that’s going to take care of itself.”
Mustari and Wolfson spoke to HRN for last week’s Ron Flatter Racing Pod. So, too, did 2015 NHC Tour winner Jonathon Kinchen before he left Las Vegas and was disqualified for trying to play this year’s tournament while he was in Florida for the Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) at Gulfstream.
Both Mustari and Kinchen spoke of talking with 1/ST Racing chief operating officer Aidan Butler, the track boss, about rethinking Gulfstream’s three-surface strategy.
“I've had some conversation with Aidan, and he’s aware,” Kinchen said. “They’re aware, and I think the issue is that the turf course is probably not exactly what they want it to be. They’re trying to preserve it, trying to make sure that it gets back to where it needs to be and where they want it to be.”
“I don't think it’s their business model to not have grass racing,” said Wolfson, whose grandfather bred and owned 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed. “I think it’s Mother Nature and the grass not taking root.”
Justin Mustari, Frank’s son and the 2021 NHC winner, said he is not so much anti-Tapeta as he is pro-turf.
“I play the game in a way that I try to not bet a lot of money,” he said. “I try to hit value and price horses. Turf racing was where I found those types of races.”
When it comes to handicapping Tapeta races, Justin Mustari did not mince his words.
“I agree that there is some madness happening on the Tapeta,” he said. “It doesn’t seem as logical as turf racing was for me.”
Kinchen said 1/ST Racing, the owner of Gulfstream, is listening to horseplayers whether they are observing, opining or flat out complaining. He said he and Hall of Fame horseplayer Paul Matties Jr., a 13-time NHC player and winner of the 2016 tournament, were together on a recent call with Butler.
“One of the questions was how to handle Tapeta races,” Kinchen said. “One of the things we discussed was moving them earlier on the card so they’re not in the middle of our (multi-race betting) sequences that we all love with the Grade 3 dirt races and the Grade 3 turf races. I’ve seen a pretty heavy move by them to move them forward in the card.”
Butler was not immediately available to comment to HRN about this story, although Kinchen vouched for his willingness to hear what bettors have to say.
“He listens,” Kinchen said. “He’s paying attention. He cares what horseplayers think, which I think is different than what a lot of executives that these racetracks do.”
Frank Mustari sounded like he would be watching and waiting but not caving in to any move toward the middle surface at Gulfstream Park.
“I need to play a circuit where I know every horse on the grounds,” he said. “I can almost handicap off the overnight. I want to be so in tune with it, and that’s where my edge comes. I hope to see Aidan Butler in the next couple of weeks or months here and get my point across to him that I don’t think that Tapeta is the way to go just yet, because you’re going to start losing a lot of your everyday guys.”
Yes, the word “yet” was in there. Jim Stirr, a two-time NHC player from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, left the door open to playing the Gulfstream synthetic. But not a lot.
“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s a learning curve with Tapeta, so I prefer less than more.”
Kinchen agrees about the learning curve, and he believes the public gradually will come around to accepting the Tapeta at Gulfstream, even if it stays away for a while.
“Just until horseplayers get more information and feel a bit more comfortable about it,” he said.