No Horse Race

The past, present, and future of horse racing are all in South Florida

"Im having to make a quantum leap in my way of thinking, a total shift," says Gulfstream Park general manager Scott Savin. It's not that Savin is changing jobs — rather, his job is changing. Radically.

"There's a way of doing business that I'm used to, but that's totally gone now," adds Savin, whose entire twenty-year working life has been spent in the world of horse racing. In 2001 the boyish 45-year-old left his job as president of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association to take his current post at Gulfstream, Florida's most successful track. Three years later his boss, self-made billionaire and Magna Entertainment president Frank Stronach, decided to overhaul Gulfstream, and maybe change the image of racing along the way.

"Everything is in flux right now — in the sport and at this park in particular," Savin says. "I mean, look at this!" He sits in a cluttered trailer that serves as his office, gesturing at the cardboard boxes spilling papers, spreadsheets, and file folders all around him. It's parked on the edge of the vast construction site that Gulfstream has become — which is prime real estate on Federal Highway in Hallandale.

Gulfstream and Calder racetracks hope to attract new fans to the raw excitement of live horse racing
Jonathan Postal
Gulfstream and Calder racetracks hope to attract new fans to the raw excitement of live horse racing
Jonathan Postal

On January 4, Savin hopes to open a new park, complete with a high-end nightclub, a restaurant, and a sports bar including 50 plasma TVs with 50-inch screens. High-rollers, Savin hopes, will hand over hundreds of dollars for champagne and an exclusive table, just like they do at SoBe clubs. Phase Two, the track manager explains, won't be ready for this season, but by fall 2007, he contends, Gulfstream will be enclosed by a giant shopping mall and residential development. All the vendors aren't secured yet, but the plan is to lure shoppers to boutique clothing, book, music, and art stores. That's the bait — Magna is betting that Hallandale habitants who head out to Gulfstream to buy sunglasses will stick around for a race or two.

"We want the people who are willing to come in and drop $200 on a bottle for a private table," Savin says. "And during our off-season, we think people with class and taste will want to come to our sports bar to watch football or baseball games."

Stronach, an Austrian who immigrated to Canada and made a billion dollars in auto parts, has high ambitions for South Florida, which, despite a nationwide downturn in attendance and revenue, remains horse racing's second-most lucrative outpost after Los Angeles. Indeed Gulfstream's success, along with neighborhood problems and the sport's general decline, helped kill Hialeah Park — once the nation's best-known track — in 2001.

Next in Gulfstream's sights: Calder Race Course, a few miles to the west. It is located just south of the Broward County line in Miami-Dade, where voters rejected slot machines after a strong push by Gov. Jeb Bush and others earlier this year. "The stakes are so high regarding slots," says Andrew Beyer, author and horse-racing columnist for the Washington Post and analyst for the Daily Racing Form, the sport's bible. "If you get 'em, it's a jackpot." Gulfstream already offers larger purses than Calder — about $38,000 on average at the Hallandale facility compared to $25,000 at Calder, according to data compiled by the Thoroughbred Times.

Magna is clearly willing to do whatever it takes at Gulfstream, its biggest investment along with the famed Santa Anita track in California. The company's estimates for total construction costs approach a half-billion dollars, and in the last two weeks Stronach has sold two tracks, Meadows in Pennsylvania and Flamboro Downs in Ontario, to raise $248.6 million toward revamping the South Florida track.

This past July Magna improperly paid $48,000 to fly four Florida legislators to its corporate headquarters in Toronto and then reported the cost as a political donation. (The trip so shamed the state Republican Party that it repaid the company in October.) And some question whether Stronach's grip on the South Florida racing world will begin to feel like a stranglehold once reluctant lawmakers in Tallahassee pen the legislation necessary to allow slots at Gulfstream, which could happen during the legislature's special session in December.

"Stronach will have slots, he'll have a new park in a great location, he owns a number of horses, he has a very high-class training facility in Boynton Beach, and his competition will be Calder, which is a nice track but has been managed in a somewhat lackluster manner," Beyer says. "I would just say that Calder needs slots."

The grande dame of South Florida racing, Hialeah Park, opened in its Mediterranean-style venue on Palm Avenue in 1932. Almost from the first race, Hialeah was glamorous. It was frequented over time by Al Capone (who made his winter home on Palm Island) and various members of the American aristocracy, including the Vanderbilts and Kennedys. Winston Churchill, when asked to describe the track, replied with typical brevity: "Extraordinary!"

At its peak, Hialeah housed about 1400 horses and hundreds of trainers, grooms, and jockeys. Paragons of equine excellence such as Seabiscuit and Seattle Slew raced at the track, and some horses from the highest ranks of racing royalty trained there. Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown winner, was stabled at Hialeah and is memorialized in a life-size bronze statue in a fountain outside the massive grandstand. On good days, 20,000 people came from all over South Florida to watch the best horses in the world at the premier winter-racing track.

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