Rock Me Like a Thoroughbred

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

Four seasons later Joseph rages on. "Stuttering ventriloquist: That's about the only act Gulfstream's marketing department didn't bring in this season [March 17, 1996]." "Has anyone on Gulfstream's management team bought a piece of music recorded after 1965? [March 3, 1998]" On February 21, 1999, Joseph again railed against Rovine's concerts in his weekly column: "It's time Gulfstream realized that racing is their primary business."

Joseph is not alone. "I don't want to sound like the last angry man," says WQAM-AM (560) host Hank Goldberg, who also serves as ESPN's horse-racing expert. "But last Sunday I didn't even bother going to the track. I played golf. It was the first time I can remember having a day off and not going to the track, and I'm talking about in my entire life. I just couldn't take it anymore."

Before becoming a broadcaster, Goldberg worked for years in advertising. This background bolsters his conviction that Rovine has strayed far afield from the product he's supposed to be selling, which ain't classic rock. "The appeal of horse racing is the same appeal that the lottery sells," Goldberg asserts. "It's a chance to win money. Say someone goes to the track and he has a sister who has red hair. He notices that in the fifth race there is a horse named Red Headed Glory and another named, oh, I don't know, Red Headed Bombshell. So he bets them 1-2 and they come in. I don't care how much he wins, that's pretty exciting stuff. It's a lot better than trying to drink 50 beers just to sit through Rick Springfield."

Goldberg says he's skeptical of the rosy numbers Rovine cites in support of his concerts. The increased attendance figures are unimpeachable, but the claims of increased betting totals are not. Although betting is up overall, Goldberg believes that's not so much because of the concerts but rather the introduction of betting on races simulcast from California. The on-track per capita, or the amount of money bet per person on races run at the track, remains low. On opening day, for instance, when Huey Lewis helped smash the attendance record, the on-track per capita was $65, the lowest number in several years. "At most major tracks," Goldberg says, "the per capita is at least twice that." In other words concerts may draw folks to Gulfstream, but they don't necessarily turn rock fans into race fans.

"Let me put it another way," Goldberg ventures. "The other day I went over to the track because I had some winning tickets from Santa Anita I needed to cash. I was hanging around and looking at the tote board when I decided to bet the second race -- what the hell. So I select a trifecta box for $24. The winning horse came out of the clouds to win, a 35-1 shot. And I won $5500." Goldberg, who is 58 years old, pauses to let the figures sink in: $5500 on a $24 bet. "Now," he asks, barely suppressing a chuckle, "isn't that better than Christopher Cross?"

Uh, yep. Most folks would probably agree that winning $5500 on a chance bet beats listening to the man who sang "Arthur's Theme." But Rovine insists the Goldbergs of the world are a dying breed. "You have to inject entertainment elements into a day at the races," he maintains. "You have to take something that the American public believes is entertaining -- because right now they're not thinking that racing is entertaining -- and you have to stick it in."

Rovine stresses that he's not necessarily expecting his strategy to pay immediate dividends. Rather he's hoping to convert casual visitors into race fans (and bettors) somewhere down the line. And what better hook than classic rock, a proven draw for people between the ages of 30 and 45, the demographic Rovine covets. "If I can get them coming here regularly on Saturday and Sunday," he says, "when they reach that state in their life when they can take a little more time off and kick back in the middle of the week, I hope they will choose a day at the races as part of their relaxation," he says. "Because don't forget, right now they're playing golf, they're fishing and boating, and playing tennis."

After rejecting the hedonism of his first ensemble, The Guess Who, deeply religious guitar player Randy Bachman banded together with his brother Tim and bassist/vocalist Fred Turner to found Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the world's greatest all-Mormon rock group. The pride of a caffeine-eschewing sect of Winnipeg, Manitoba, proceeded to score two or three hit singles before releasing a greatest hits album in 1976. Not much has happened since. Randy Bachman left in 1977, and the group disbanded two years after that. Heavy rotation on classic-rock radio stations (and a bit of a renaissance as the spokesgroup for an office-supply chain) enables different members of the band to tour, either under the original name or as BTO, depending on who's singing at the time.

In a cross-promotional move that would no doubt turn Hank Goldberg's stomach, Gulfstream's second race this Saturday afternoon -- a seven-furlong affair -- has been dubbed the BTO Stakes. As the horses enter the gate, hundreds of windbreakered race fans fill the plastic lawn chairs along the clubhouse rail. With racing forms and Sun-Sentinels folded on their laps, they roar as the horses hustle for the $10,000 purse. "C'mon, Pat!" a gray-haired man shouts to Pat Day, the jockey aboard Backston Hill. "C'mon, Pat! You're right there!" Right there in second place. Backston Hill finishes behind Valid Reply.

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