Rock Me Like a Thoroughbred

To the chagrin of horse-racing fans, Gulfstream Park has become South Florida's leading classic-rock venue

Rick Springfield is a rock star. At least he was in the early Eighties, when he hit number one with the single "Jessie's Girl." A few followups also cracked the Top 20 ("I've Done Everything for You," "Don't Talk to Strangers"), though none since Ronald Reagan's first presidential term. Springfield is playing one of those vaguely familiar hits now as he wraps up his Valentine's Day set at Gulfstream Park. Nearly two decades after his heyday, he's still busting all the bread-and-butter moves of the arena-rock canon: His sweaty fist punches the air after every power chord; his purple Stratocaster hangs close to his hips, its neck thrust forward, suitably phallic.

This same guitar broke earlier, during the first verse of "Jessie's Girl." Springfield's scramble to repair the instrument stretched the bouncy little single into a jam of Grateful Deadly proportions. Now, as he tries to finish another of the songs that once powered a million high school pom-pom routines, the guitar strings refuse to stay in tune. In frustration Springfield tears the guitar from his neck, waves it overhead, and smashes it against the stage in what is probably the most justified instrument demolition in rock history. But there is one complication: The guitar won't break. The former soap opera actor starts going General Hospital on its ass, flogging the six-string with a fury not seen at a Miami sporting event since Kiss rocked the Super Bowl pregame. Nothing. Again. Nothing. Not even a splinter.

"He'll never be The Who," cracks 55-year-old Gordon Stevens, one of several thousand spectators. "He's no Pete Townshend."

Maybe not. But he's close enough for David Rovine, the promoter who booked Springfield for this gig. Technically Rovine isn't a concert promoter; he's the head of Gulfstream Park's marketing department. In the past three years, however, Rovine has made his name as a rock impresario. He books more than twenty shows per racing season. The Doobie Brothers. Air Supply. Cheap Trick. Thanks to his efforts, Gulfstream Park, located along U.S. 1 just over the county line in Hallandale, is more closely associated with rock music than any racetrack outside Altamont.

And it's this association that infuriates long-time race fans, who insist that Rovine has reduced one of the country's premier winter tracks to a classic-rock tourist attraction. The prestigious Breeders' Cup ran twice at Gulfstream, in 1989 and 1992, and will return in November. Among the great horses to circle the track's oval are Northern Dancer, Spectacular Bid, and Cigar. Yet almost all newspaper, radio, and billboard promotion of the racetrack ignores these showcase steeds. When reigning horse of the year Favorite Trick debuted as a three-year-old last season, for instance, Rovine put the promotional emphasis on a concert featuring The Guess Who.

He portrays cross-promotion as key to surviving in the slumping world of thoroughbred racing, and insists his concerts have drawn thousands of people to the track who otherwise wouldn't come. In his grand vision, these visitors, with some careful nurturing, will grow into the next generation of bettors.

"The racing press doesn't particularly care for it," he concedes, referring to his "rock first, bet later" campaign. "They're part of the older racing audience that says, 'Why are you doing that? I've loved racing for 40 years since I was brought by my dad.' I always say, 'Where's your son? Do you have your son with you today? Is your daughter with you today?' And most of them don't. They were brought by their fathers 40 years ago, but somehow they failed to bring their children, and that's who I'm going after, basically."

Bill Graham drifted to San Francisco in the early Sixties. An exile of Nazi Germany, he worked a series of odd jobs -- waiter, amateur actor, cab driver -- before he became the business manager of a struggling guerrilla mime troupe. Funds were so tight that Graham was compelled to hold a benefit concert at the Fillmore Auditorium. In doing so he found his calling; the Fillmore show became the first of hundreds of concerts Graham would book featuring seminal rock acts such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Moby Grape. In time Graham established himself as the dominant promoter in American rock history.

The parallels between Bill Graham and David Rovine are obvious. Jefferson Airplane debuted at the Fillmore before rechristening itself Jefferson Starship and playing ... at Gulfstream. Santana soloed for hours at both venues. Graham promoted a concert at San Francisco's Winterland Auditorium for eventual Gulfstream headliner Bachman-Turner Overdrive. In 1991 Graham died in a helicopter crash as he flew home from a concert featuring Huey Lewis and the News -- the same group that sort of rocked Gulfstream Park's 1999 season opener. "That was a great show," Rovine recalls. "We smashed the attendance projections for that day with more than 31,000 people, the biggest opening day in the 60-year history of the track."

Rovine is in his office, leaning back in a blue leather chair. He is an imposingly tall man, 50 years old, with his children enshrined in snapshots on a credenza behind him. He wears a well-groomed mustache, which is somewhat unfortunate, for with it he is an absolute carbon copy of the principal in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, a comparison he hears incessantly from his enemies.

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