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Upgrades come to Gulfstream, but racing is still main attraction

The Baltimore Sun

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- The day after the March 31 Florida Derby, a sunny, 82-degree Sunday, Herb Kornspun had his family gathered along the rail for the start of the first race at Gulfstream Park.

"I'm a regular," said Kornspun, 82. "I don't usually come on the weekend, but my daughter and my two grandchildren are in from New York, and this was our one opportunity to come to the track. I wanted to show them where I hang out."

For many fans, Gulfstream has become a great place to "hang out."

The track is a bright, clean and friendly place, with a lot of young people in the crowd. Parents and grandparents with their families, such as the Kornspuns, and young families, such as Cathy and Ross Tanner, from London, who were pushing a stroller containing their 9-month-old daughter, Sophie.

"We're on holiday," Cathy Tanner said. "We're not really interested in the gambling. It just looked like a nice place to come, and we know the [Florida] Derby is a big race. We'll make a few bets on the horses, but mostly we'll just enjoy the scene and watching the horses run."

This is all quite different from the scenes at most older tracks where, unlike Gulfstream, slots have not been added to the menu of activities. And it is one of the unusual aspects of Gulfstream Park and perhaps its saving grace.

Like Maryland's Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, Gulfstream is owned by Magna Entertainment Corp. But the presence of slots encouraged Magna to pump in money here and remodel the plant.

When Gulfstream - which added slots Nov. 15 - opened its winter meet in January, attendance was up by about 3,000 people and the handle up by $150,000 over the 2006 winter opener. On the first Saturday of the winter meet, Gulfstream drew about 3,500 more fans and was up more than $200,000 in handle over the same day the year before. However, through April 1, average daily handle was about even with last year's meet, The Daily Racing Form reported. Still, purses were averaging 17 percent higher than 2006.

"It's very professional here," Kornspun said. "I don't play the slots. Look around - the atmosphere here is wonderful. It's a nice place to bring my family. The security is good. The restaurants are good. The food is good. The racing is good. Why wouldn't anyone like this?"

When Gulfstream was remodeled to build a slot machine emporium, racing did not get pushed into the background, as has happened at other tracks that have added slots.

Horses at forefront

Ask almost anyone who comes to this park, and he can tell you how to get to the racetrack to see live racing. And from the moment a person passes through the front gates, he or she is immediately aware of horses.

"Horse racing is the centerpiece here," said Bill Murphy, who became Gulfstream president and general manager in January. "Our chairman, Frank Stronach, has a vision, and when you come here, there is no doubt he cares about the horse industry.

"You walk up to our beautiful building, and the first thing you see is the walking ring, surrounded by rows of seats. There are big screens all over the place, so people can watch the races. Our dormitories are the best in the world for the people who take care of the animals.

"Frank has built a brand new racing surface and barn areas. He's been the leading owner and breeder in North America four of the last five years. For anyone to say all he cares about is slots simply defies logic here."

That's not to say some hard-core racing fans haven't been turned off by the changes.

They find the track's design less than congenial, pointing to limited outdoor seating along the frontstretch. Once one of the best frontstretch areas in the country for large numbers of fans to gather to watch a race, Gulfstream now seats about 900 in its grandstand. The true railbird is unimpressed with the pleasant terrace with iron tables and comfortable chairs for limited al fresco carryout dining.

During the Florida Derby, even owners and trainers chose to stand on a crowded staircase leading to the grandstand to watch their Kentucky Derby prospects run, rather than try to see the race from any other location.

But those coming for the first time and even some of those who are longtime visitors, like Kornspun, find little to complain about.

"I don't mind the changes," Kornspun said.

Murphy said he is encouraged by the younger crowds coming to Gulfstream this season.

"One reason has to be the facility," he said of the structure that includes a simulcasting room, two slots emporiums, a deli, a cafeteria and an upscale restaurant.

When the racing season ended, April 22, construction was set to begin on a retail development west of the main building that is expected to be completed in 2008. And, eventually, a condominium development will get under way.

Gulfstream is in sharp contrast to tracks in Maryland, where facilities are in need of remodeling and updating, and even to nearby Hialeah Park, once among the most famous tracks in the country, which has been closed since May 2001 because of failing attendance and is now deteriorating.

Asked if the passage of a slots bill would guarantee the restoration of Pimlico, Magna vice president Joe De Francis said: "It's extremely important. ... But if a bill is crafted in such a way that there is a revenue stream that will allow it, a draft of legislation to restore the capital facilities at the racetracks, it would carry us forward."

Back at Gulfstream, Murphy said: "Saturday, four people from Naples, Florida, just decided to come see the Florida Derby. They weren't horse people. They didn't know that much about racing. I know they came, watched the races and had a good time, because they came back today and looked me up.

"They wanted to know how to get into the business. They want to buy a horse. It was amazing. These were people in their late 40s, two couples, asking, 'How do you get in the game?' That's what this industry needs."

And Murphy said Gulfstream has everything necessary to present the sport in a way that will draw people to it.

Risers and riders

Next season, the track will begin having educational "Breakfasts at Gulfstream," offering fans the opportunity to come to the track in the early mornings to watch workouts with someone like retired jockey Angel Cordero, who will explain various aspects of training and riding.

"Already John Velazquez has organized the jockeys here to do autograph sessions, instead of just hiding away in the locker room between races," Murphy said. "John is the president of the Jockeys' Guild, and he came to us with the idea of signing autographs between races and teaching different aspects off the game. He organizes the schedule, and the jockeys are having fun doing it while the fans are learning the game and meeting the riders.

"We need to do more of those kinds of things."

The slots, which have become the necessary second income horse racing so desperately needs up and down the East Coast, appear to play second fiddle to racing during the day, but become more popular in the evenings. And they are making money.

Eric Lemerand, Gulfstream's vice president of gaming, said slots - Gulfstream has 1,221 machines - had drawn more than $12.5 million in gross revenue the first three months this year. Gulfstream pays half of its slots earnings to the Florida education department.

Another Gulfstream visitor, Thomas Corrice, 72, of Orlando, Fla., said he also sees slot machines as a boost to horse racing.

"The gambling improves the racing through the purses and by getting people out here to see the sport," he said. "I don't go for horse racing, but I always make a couple bets when I'm in a facility like this."

Trainer Barclay Tagg, who maintains stables at Gulfstream as well as at Fair Hill, Md., said: "They said they raised the purses 17 or 18 percent. I guess that's a mild increase. I think by this time next year the slots will have a great impact on the track, and I just hope they pass that on to the horsemen."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

Kentucky Derby

What -- First leg of horse racing's Triple Crown series

When -- Saturday

Where -- Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.

Distance -- 1 1/4 miles

Post time -- 6:04 p.m.

TV -- Chs. 11, 4

Other Triple Crown races -- Preakness, May 19, Pimlico Race Course; Belmont Stakes, June 9, Belmont Park.

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