Rock Me Like a Thoroughbred

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

He runs the entire marketing department, overseeing a dozen employees during the season, which runs from January 3 to next Tuesday, March 16. His office walls are plastered with posters of top horses and marquee stakes races. A wall opposite his desk features a series of laminated calendars on which special giveaways are scrawled in erasable black ink. On each weekend day, a yellow Post-it note clings to the calendar, announcing the band booked for that day. January 24: Taylor Dayne. January 31: Buster Poindexter. February 28: Christopher Cross. Last season only Saturday was concert day. This season Rovine booked shows for every single Saturday and Sunday.

Rovine's own background is a curious amalgam of show business and racing. For years he operated a dinner theater in Orlando. Later he achieved his own distinction as the top trainer at the Meadowlands harness track, claiming more than a million dollars in winnings in one year. Tax losses combined with the ongoing troubles of the harness-racing industry prompted Rovine to accept a marketing job with the Rosecroft racetrack outside of Washington, D.C. His decision to hold a Drifters concert at the park in 1994 set an attendance record and led him to believe he'd discovered racing's future.

"We're trying to be more like Las Vegas," Rovine says bluntly. "Las Vegas and Atlantic City are wildly successful, so why don't we look at them to see what they're doing right? Well, they've got a lounge act going on, they've got multiple games going on. They got this and that, with constant action and constant activity. From day one they have successfully blended entertainment with their product. Vegas is doing what I'm trying to do."

Like most racetracks nationwide, Gulfstream faces a diluted gambling market. South Floridians can wager on Seminole or Miccosukee bingo, jai alai, the Florida Lottery, or dog racing just as easily as they can play the ponies. Industrywide, annual attendance at horse tracks has dropped from 54.4 million in 1991 to 34.4 million today, according to International Gaming and Wagering Business magazine. Over the past quarter-century, the sport's share of all wagering has dived from 28 percent to less than 10 percent. In South Florida attendance continues to decline at both Calder and Hialeah racetracks.

In contrast Gulfstream Park's attendance has grown by 25 percent on Saturdays since Rovine threw his first concert three seasons ago. The handle (the total amount of money bet) grew by nineteen percent during that same period.

"I am a realist," he says. "A lot of people in racing four or five years ago knew there was a problem but didn't want to admit it. I felt that if racing is to survive into the year 2000, it must change its face. Period. My goal is to reposition Gulfstream Park as an entertainment facility featuring world-class thoroughbred racing, rather than having it be simply a world-class thoroughbred racetrack."

Toward that goal, Rovine has erected a small stage on the grassy expanse just outside the main grandstand. Palm trees rise behind the stage's white canopy like candles on a birthday cake. Concerts are included with each three-dollar general-admission ticket, making them an incredibly cheap show.

The concerts and the horses run simultaneously. Rovine starts his shows two hours after noon, or about post time in the track's fourth of eleven races. (The sound is engineered not to travel far beyond the stage, so as to not disrupt the horses.) "Concerts have been going on for years," Rovine notes, adding that the Beatles played at Suffolk Downs. "But they've either done them before or after the racing, because the racing management has been afraid to disrupt the day. I've found that when you hold a concert after the race, the racing public is leaving while the concertgoers are entering. It's imperative that the concert take place while the racing is going on so that after the concert they can walk over and watch a horse race."

To awaken the potential gambler hidden inside every Buster Poindexter fan, Rovine created the Inside Track Room. This glassed-in studio is a training ground for new fish eager to learn the ancient art of pari-mutuel gambling. After each show extraordinarily perky college drama students explain everything from the basics (win, place, and show) to more complex bets (the superfecta part-wheel).

"This [promotional strategy] is not brain surgery," Rovine acknowledges. "I spent twenty-some years in racing, and I love it, but my love of it will not bring one person to this door. And I've got to be able to get 'em in the door. Then I'm going to teach 'em how to play the game. And we teach newcomers how to play the game better than anyone else in racing.

"It's common sense," he continues. "At least it is to people outside the industry. People inside the industry, though, hate it."

Dave Joseph, for one. "Somebody, anybody, stop Gulfstream's new marketing department," pleaded the Sun-Sentinel's racing writer soon after Rovine arrived at the track in 1995. "Although Gulfstream will have the best racing in the country this winter, the folks in the marketing department are doing everything they can to cheapen a meet with sideshows and music acts that will not lure new fans."

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