Rock Me Like a Thoroughbred

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

The walk from the track to the concert stage cuts through the grandstand. Cigar-chomping gamblers mill about at several rows of betting windows, staring at their programs. Food booths serve bagels, black beans, and North Carolina barbecue. For more discriminating diners, the Royal Palm and the Terrace dining rooms await. Up an escalator in the Grand Hall, a giant tote board flashes odds on the next race. For anyone interested in a little OTB with their BTO, a bank of television screens broadcasts racing simulcasts from Oaklawn, Laurel Park, and Aqueduct.

Back outside in the sunshine beyond the grandstand, Rovine climbs onto the concert stage wearing an out-of-place gray suit with matching tie. He marches over to a microphone near the drum set and taps it with his finger. "How's everybody doooooing this afternoon?" he bellows, looking a lot like a school principal addressing a pep rally. "Who here likes classic rock?"

Before him unfolds his Vegas. A couple of thousand people who do indeed like classic rock bake in the grass adjacent the grandstand, most sitting on lawn chairs or blankets they brought themselves. Many sport faded black Harley wear, though a few tie-dyed shirts colorize the assembly. The T-shirt of one potential future race fan identifies him as "100 percent rebel and damn proud." A promotional vehicle, classic-rock station BIG 106's (WBGG-FM 106.0) Hummer, idles nearby.

There are several thousand more people within earshot, many of them kids. On Sundays, family day, even more youngsters bound up and down on an amusement-park air mattress, or dangle from a portable rock-climbing wall. Toddlers ride ponies in a square corral set up to the side of the stage. Today, like every day, cart vendors dispense salty pretzels, lemonade, and cold Miller beer. In the distance lies the paddock, where horses parade for gamblers before each post. The racetrack itself is not visible.

Rovine announces some upcoming concerts. The Little River Band gets a smattering of cheers, though it's nothing compared to the whoop released in honor of the return of The Guess Who (the Bachman connection resurfacing). "How about a round of applause for Charlie Horse, ladies and gentlemen?" Rovine implores as an equine mascot stumbles onstage, its human occupant clearly struggling with a loss of peripheral vision. The horse helps Rovine host a simulated race, with the crowd wagering on their knowledge of BTO trivia. What year did BTO's single "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" hit number one? A man in the front of the stage bleats out the answer: 1974.

With a final exultation to the crowd, Rovine gives way to the band. Lead singer Fred Turner proceeds to celebrate the silver anniversary of his creative dry spell by singing "Takin' Care of Business" for what must be the ten millionth time. His face is flushed with sunburn. A brown bass guitar presses against his substantial belly. "And at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida," he calls out, "they were singing..."

Alert to its duties, the crowd warbles the refrain: "Taking care of business!"

It's a refrain, of course, that applies just as well to Rovine. He plans to continue holding concerts like this one every weekend next season. And he has his boosters. "No one has come up with a better idea," says Scott Savin, president of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "It is at least bringing more people out to the track, which is the first step toward converting them into race fans."

Gulfstream president Douglas Donn admits he's not terribly crazy about the music. But like Savin he can't argue with 5000 more people coming out to his park, even if it is primarily to see a band like BTO. Rock is good business, he says, because people just aren't drawn to a horse track by traditional advertising. "I love thoroughbred horse racing," he declares. "I love it so much that I don't know why other people don't want to be here all the time. The reason they aren't here, I believe, is because they don't know how attractive the sport is. And you can't show them until you grab them by the hand and bring them here. Traditionalists think it's enough just to talk about the racing, but I don't."

The concert ends after about 45 minutes. Groupies (they still exist) line up to collect autographs, possibly in hopes of identifying who is actually playing in the band today. More than a few of the Harley shirts can be seen loitering along the track rail, where jockey Jorge Chavez is knocking them dead, winning a phenomenal six mounts.

Beside the now empty concert stage is the Inside Track Room, Rovine's custom-made incubator for future bettors. To his delight the room is actually crowded with classic-rock fans. One of the drama students, using exaggerated arm movements, portrays the potential excitement inherent in a correctly predicted exacta wager. The man in the rebel T-shirt applauds politely, on cue. Perhaps somewhere in his damn proud brain he's scheduling his leisure activities for the next 30 years, and leaving some room open for Gulfstream.

At least one gambler at the track today is betting on it.

Art Garfunkel performs 2:00 p.m. Saturday, March 13 and Warren Hill performs 2:00 p.m. Sunday, March 14 (last concert of the season) at Gulfstream Park, 901 S Federal Hwy, Hallandale. Concerts and program are included with $3 admission to the park. Call 305-931-7223 for details.

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