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No Horse Race

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

"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.

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.

The allure of Hialeah and the emergence of Tropical Park (on Bird Road, closed in 1972), Calder, and Gulfstream, as well as a booming breeding industry in Ocala, combined to make South Florida a horse-racing mecca by the Fifties.

Stocky, grim-faced Eddie Plesa Jr., who stables about 40 horses, is one of the most successful trainers at Calder. He was born into the sport — his father was a jockey who became a trainer and raised his son in the profession. In 1997 the 56-year-old passed his dad on Calder's all-time-winningest trainers' list.

Plesa Jr. believes that horse racing has a natural allure, combining the hyperkineticism of the animals with the thrill of wagering. "What funds racing is purse money," he says. "What funds purse money is people coming to the races and gambling."

Though a 2003 study commissioned by the National Horse Racing Association estimated the sport's total economic impact in Florida at $2.1 billion, second only to California's $4.1 billion, there's a problem: The sport has suffered from waning turnout for more than a decade. Attendance at pari-mutuels statewide plummeted from 17 million in 1980 to 2.7 million in 2003, according to state regulatory agencies.

"It's a truly exciting sport if you get people down to the track to watch it," Plesa Jr. says. "But we need to do something different than we're doing now to get people there. Because it isn't working."

In South Florida the difficulties can also be attributed to the rise of other teams like the Panthers, Marlins, and Heat. Nationwide, horse racing has suffered from new technologies that allow bettors to wager from home, where all one needs are a satellite dish and a phone line. Tracks like Calder make some of their money by simulcasting races from around the country — a Catch-22 wherein the venues earn cash but lose out on bettors who might otherwise be spending money on concessions and live races.

"Calder is going to need slot machines because their purses are bad," says racing analyst, WQAM-AM (560) radio host, and ESPN commentator "Hammer" Hank Goldberg. "The industry is in a little trouble, and a lot of trainers have moved from traditionally strong racing states, like California, to places like Delaware or West Virginia, where they have slots, and with slots come the big purses."

Goldberg laments the lack of new racing fans. But he believes Churchill Downs, which owns Calder and eight other tracks, including the eponymous race course, has the money to keep the track afloat for a while. He thinks it's critical that Churchill place slots back on the ballot in 2007. "In the long run they're going to need slots, but I think they can get it once you-know-who is out of office," Goldberg says, referring to Governor Bush.

The radio host has seen a lot of tracks come and go across the country. He says Magna's new marketing ploy at Gulfstream is interesting, but he remains skeptical. "A lot of what Scott Savin says is pie in the sky," he states.

Referring to Savin's boss, Stronach, Plesa Jr. adds, " There's a very successful businessman who's put a ton of money behind his idea. I don't know if it will work, but I certainly hope it will.... Look at what NASCAR did. Five years ago it was considered a hillbilly sport. I think it can happen, but it's going to take money."

Money — which Stronach and Churchill Downs have in great supply — seems to be exactly what is lacking in Hialeah. The city's Byzantine politics, though, might change that.


The Past

Paul O'Grady sits in the permanent twilight of VFW Post 8330, sipping a cup of coffee at 10:00 a.m. on a Wednesday. A tattoo that has long since faded to a blue blur adorns one of his meaty arms as he looms over the bar he wiped down just minutes ago. The beefy 65-year-old, who has worked at the post for almost three decades, still opens at 9:00 a.m. every weekday. But he doesn't have many customers.

 

The post is supposed to serve only members, but O'Grady would be happy to see the trainers, jockeys, and grooms who once crossed East 32nd Street from Hialeah Park, which closed in 2001. "I seen Joe Louis there once," says O'Grady, his boxer's mug framed by slicked-back gray hair and long sideburns. "I used to go about every day."

"Every day!" affirms slight and skinny Andrew Calderin. The retired Air Force colonel sits across the bar from O'Grady and serves as a human punctuation mark to the larger man's statements.

"It was Hialeah's pride," O'Grady says. "It was magnificent."

"Magnificent!" echoes Calderin.

"It was something," O'Grady continues. "The best years were the Fifties and Sixties, and some of the Seventies. Back then, you had to have a suit on in the clubhouse of course. The ladies had to have a dress on until pantsuits became the thing. By the end though, you'd see ladies in there wearing a tank top, maybe carrying a six-pack."

Calderin laughs.

On the wall is a sign that reads, "NOTICE: No Foul or Vulgar Language." Nearby is a photo of O'Grady amid a group in the winner's circle at Hialeah. "That was at a memorial service we had for Oliver Cutshaw. He was a jockey at Hialeah, spent a lot of time in here. When that place shut down, it killed us over here."

John Brunetti, a real-estate magnate with a love of the horse game, bought the track in 1977, when its fortunes had already begun to decline. Gulfstream and Calder were more accessible to South Florida's wealthy coastal denizens, and Hialeah and NW 79th Street — the main route to the park from Miami — were gaining a reputation for violent crime.

Brunetti tried to keep the track running for more than twenty years, often operating at a financial loss. He closed it after Florida deregulated the industry, a move that allowed Calder and Gulfstream to run on the same dates as Hialeah.

These days, families can rent sections of the park for weddings, birthdays, and quinceañera celebrations, but parts of the massive place have fallen into disrepair. The famous flamingos (as seen in the opening credits of Miami Vice) still huddle around the pond at the track's center. Rather than well-trimmed hedges and jockeys in multicolored silks, only a mass of tangled foliage and decrepit stables surrounded by knee-high grass remain.

In the park's heart, the magnificent clubhouse and grandstand decay under sheaves of bougainvillea. Fountains like the one enclosing a life-size statue of Citation have gone dry and are ringed by ornate stone tables with empty sockets where colorful umbrellas used to fit. "It was simply the most beautiful track in the country," Beyer says. It's still grand, but in a haunted, crumbling way. Call it Mediterranean Gothic.

In 1998 Hialeah commissioned a study that suggested the city and state pool resources to buy the park, parcel off some of the outlying land for development, and run a 21-day "boutique" race to pay for maintenance and upkeep. The problem: The study estimated the park's value at a paltry $38 million, which Brunetti found insulting.

Now the fate of the track — and the 200 acres surrounding it — is the subject of rumor and debate.

The grandstand has been designated a historic site by Miami-Dade County and is on the National Register of Historic Places, which could make rezoning difficult. But this past June, Brunetti, who didn't return several calls seeking comment, spoke with state officials about rezoning the land, according to Hialeah City Attorney William Grodnick. "It was a preliminary meeting to discuss the process," Grodnick says. "Mr. Brunetti didn't reveal any of his plans."

But rumors abound. Folks like Frank Denninger, a lifelong Hialeah resident whose grandfather was a traffic cop at the track on race days, gossip that Brunetti wants to sell off the land. "I heard just the other day that they were going to build a Target there," Denninger says. "Before that it was a Wal-Mart."

Four Hialeah officials and a prominent businessman who spoke with New Times on condition of anonymity said they had heard Mayor Raul Martinez, a political icon who is finishing his last term, will take a job spearheading the development of Hialeah Park after he leaves office at the end of the year. Martinez did not return several phone calls or a list of questions faxed to him by New Times.

Martinez and Brunetti have long been allies, and the Hialeah mayor was the track's registered lobbyist in Tallahassee in the Nineties. City council president and mayoral favorite Julio Robaina won't discuss rumors about Martinez but says he'd like to see at least 100 acres surrounding the park developed into a "mixed-use city-center type of thing." Robaina thinks he can arrange a public/private partnership to develop the land and have a three-week "boutique meet" at the track every winter — much like the 1998 plan.

 

Robaina says he hasn't discussed the plans with anyone other than Hialeah Republican state Sen. Rudy Garcia, and that those discussions have been only preliminary. Garcia did not return several calls for comment.

Other mayoral candidates have picked up on the issue. All of them agree that some kind of development is a good idea — disagreements seem to center on how much and where. "I'd hate to see anything big there," says former Republican state Sen. Roberto Casas, now a mayoral candidate. "Maybe a small number of apartments, just not very many."

Casas says Martinez and Brunetti are very close, and he's worried the pair will overdevelop the land and add to Hialeah's traffic woes. "Listen, all they want to do is make money," he says. "If I get elected mayor, they will have to preserve it."

Former state Rep. Nilo Juri, also a mayoral hopeful, once ordered Martinez removed from the floor of the House of Representatives in Tallahassee while the mayor was lobbying for the track. "I told him lobbyists aren't allowed in there," Juri says. Juri has one idea for the track: "The number one plan is that, regardless of anything else, racing has to come back to Hialeah Park."

So far that hasn't happened, but Miami Beach resident and activist Allison Booth — a horse-racing marketer — is working to preserve the track and keep the surrounding land undeveloped. "I really believe that Mr. Brunetti loves that track and doesn't want to see it demolished," she says.

Booth is a native of Ireland and angrily remembers when historic Phoenix Park, where she trained horses with her family as a child, was demolished after "falling through the cracks of rezoning." Booth is trying to attract investors and has lobbied to preserve the park. "When I talk to horsemen all over the world about Hialeah, I have to be ready, because everyone — everyone — who's ever been there has a story about the place," she says. "Everyone loves it and wants to talk about it."


The Present

Calder Race Course, a verdant expanse just north of Dolphins Stadium on NW 27th Avenue, doesn't open until 11:30 a.m. But the little world contained on the grounds behind the track, one most racing patrons never see, is crawling with activity by 6:00 a.m. on this fall day. Horses gleaming like burnished wood walk in circles like a living carousel. Grooms emerge from numbered apartments above the wooden stables that house about 400 horses. Trainers pull into the parking lots and are approached by jockeys eager for a day's work and a shot at prize money.

Julian Canet, a baby-face fellow casual in shorts and a red T-shirt, leans against the barn where he stables sixteen horses. "My father trained at Calder [for decades]," he says, keeping an eye on a massive dun-colored creature one of his trainers is walking. "I've been at a racetrack all my life. It's lucky to have a job you love. I feel for the horses, and I do for the horses as best I can." He snaps off a few terse phrases in Spanish to the groom and then heads into the stables, which smell like horses, hay, and the dung that Canet somehow avoids without looking at the ground. "This is my world," he says. "I hope it lasts."

By the time the gates open, the mostly elderly patrons make their way into the facility to watch the live races or, more likely, wager on and watch simulcast races from across the country.

On an average weekday, hundreds of Calder's regulars occupy the plastic seats in front of the scores of TVs inset in the track's interior walls, where they watch races from Delaware, New York, and Kentucky, among other places. Francisco Muñoz sits silently, clad in a lemon-yellow guayabera and a faded blue baseball cap. He stares at a screen where horses are lining up at the starting gate for a midday race at Belmont. He is silent and still as a statue — until the race begins, when he leaps from his seat and screams at the screen: "No-no-no-no-no-no. No!" He expresses the bilingual sentiment so forcefully that it leaves spittle on his salt-and-pepper mustache.

A resident of nearby Miami Gardens, Muñoz says he doesn't care where he gambles. "If this place closes, I guess I'll go to the other one, unless it's too expensive," remarks the 67-year-old retired mechanic. "Tell you what, my grandkids would be happy if I stopped coming."

 

Calder opened in 1971. Churchill Downs purchased the park in 1999 but has taken the opposite tack to Stronach's makeover, pursuing no major renovations and no major changes in the marketing plans. Instead the company plunked three million dollars into last year's slots vote and plans to spend more on the 2007 ballot in Miami-Dade (which has not yet been approved).

Calder spokeswoman Michelle Blanco, who grew up in the world of South Florida racing — both of her parents were trainers — denies that Gulfstream could edge Calder out of business, but admits that the purse money from slots revenue is vital to the track's economic health. Right now, running year-round racing and simulcasting are keeping it afloat.

The track handle (the amount of money that changes hands during betting) has dropped dramatically since it began simulcasting races from other facilities in 1995. In 1994 total track handle was $109 million; the next year the number fell to $96 million. In 2004 on-track handle at Calder was a measly $47 million. Attendance peaked at 1.1 million in 1976. Last year on-track attendance was 544,745.

The decline is industrywide, but Churchill Downs and Magna are two of the three largest track owners in the business. (The other is the New York Horse Racing Association, which has no properties in Florida.) The difference between the two companies is highlighted by their South Florida competition.

Where Magna is trying to cash in on the Miami area's exploding cachet, Calder has been criticized for its modest aesthetic — Brunetti once compared it to a shopping mall. The interior is largely hot-dog stands, potted plants, and rows of chairs bolted to the floor. The occasional high-roller hangs out in the white linen dining area, but most live-racing patrons look like those in a Minor League Baseball stadium.

Blanco admits the facilities are a bit worn, but says the average racing fan finds it comfortable.

"The fact is that this is an older facility, but that doesn't take away from the racing itself," she insists. "Most people have no idea that when you go to a track, you can go right down to the paddock and see these incredible creatures just feet away. It's a thrill, and we don't think we need a shopping mall or a nightclub to make it more of a thrill."

Beyer, however, is critical of Churchill Downs's management of the track. "Lots of people view Magna as kind of an upstart and think Churchill Downs is ultimately probably good for racing," he says. "But when I look at Churchill's management of Calder, I can't say I find it all that admirable. They have an opportunity, particularly in the winter, to put on good races, but instead they just run as many races as they can irrespective of the quality, to grind out every dollar."

Slots revenue would solve many of these problems — Calder vice president Ken Dunn has publicly stated he thinks getting slots would double Calder's purse money. Blanco contends there won't be much trouble getting slots once Jeb Bush vacates the governor's seat: "The Governor's [anti-slots] jaunt was about appeasing certain elements in his political party. We're confident voters will understand that this isn't just good for the track — some of that money will go to the school system as well."

Canet says the future isn't bright. "In five years, I see Gulfstream being around for sure. Maybe Calder. A lot depends on slots."


The Future

Gulfstream is crawling with construction workers. The five-story faade is already visible from Federal Highway, but — only eight weeks before opening day — it is far from a finished product. Savin says the view through the main entrance gates will consist of a paved walkway, a massive fountain, and the grandstand.

Will Stronach's new horse-racing palace eventually be the only game in town? Will shopping for a pair of Kenneth Coles and laying down 50 bucks on the number three horse to place become the fashionable way to spend a Sunday afternoon in Hallandale?

Stronach, who referred all questions to Savin, is betting that it will. In 2003 he completed a 300-acre, $100 million Boynton Beach training center that includes state-of-the-art living quarters for grooms and open-air stables for horses. "Everything in that place is so first-class," remarks Goldberg. "I'll say this much for Stronach — I've never seen anything like that place before."

If the brash Austrian wins his wager, the refurbished Gulfstream track and ownership of hundreds of high-caliber horses will tower over South Florida racing like George Steinbrenner looms over Major League Baseball.

 

"Gulfstream's success will depend on three things," Beyer says. "Whether their purses are any good. Whether the slots ever come through. And whether Magna turns out to be right about the questionable proposition that people who come to Gulfstream to play the slots or go shopping will also want to bet on horses."

Magna's recent brush with political impropriety might have slowed the process of prodding legislators to finally put pen to paper and draft the legislation that will bring slots to Broward. Most in Tallahassee are mum about this past July's $48,000 lobbying debacle — in which the company paid four of Florida's Republican lawmakers to travel to company headquarters in Toronto. Two were on the committee that regulates Florida pari-mutuels: former Senate President Jim King of Jacksonville and Sen. Dennis Jones of St. Petersburg. The embarrassing episode "hasn't made lobbying any easier," says Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

Nevertheless, regulation for slot machines at four Broward pari-mutuels — including Gulfstream, Hollywood Greyhound Track, Dania Jai-Alai, and Pompano Park — will likely be approved when the legislature meets in special session December 5.

Magna's owner is determined to move forward. "Mr. Stronach is very passionate about horse racing, so he's overseeing this project, right down to the silverware patterns," Savin says. "But he's also a self-made billionaire, and he likes a return on his investment. Call it passionate capitalism."

Regardless, by the 2007 slots vote, Churchill Downs and Magna will set the landscape for horse racing in South Florida.

"The sport isn't going away," opines Hammer Goldberg. "But it'll probably change in the next few years. Churchill Downs isn't going down without a fight, but neither did Brunetti."


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