By Jim Freer
Unless there are late changes in plans, there will be no tents or other covered structures for fans when the Gulfstream Park West thoroughbred race meet opens Oct. 5th on the property of Calder Casino in Miami Gardens, Fla.
That is one of the amenity-related and safety-related reasons why Gulfstream Park, which is running the meet as part of a lease agreement, is asking fans to not go to Calder.
Instead, Gulfstream is asking fans in South Florida to use other locations with simulcasting (notably Gulfstream) and Advance Deposit Wagering services to watch and wager on races at the GP West meet. The 40-day meet will extend through Nov. 27, primarily on Wednesdays through Sundays.
Gulfstream is in Hallandale Beach, Fla., eight miles due east of Calder.
The photos on the home page and within this story illustrate the logistical problems at Calder. They show what is left in the track side area, where until last year there was a seven-story grandstand building and an apron area laden with tables, chairs, benches and refreshment stands.
Calder and its parent Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) are still working on the tear-down of the building. That is one of the areas of the Calder property where they hope to do commercial re-development, but thus far have not announced any plans.
What’s at Calder
This fall—based on what Calder is making available for fans–there will be no covered areas, seats, restrooms, refreshment stands or mutuel clerks in the now-empty area near the track.
There will be a tent for horsemen.
Fans will be allowed to watch races in the track side area—a requirement under Florida law.
There will be several automated tellers in the track side area.
Fans will need to walk to Calder’s casino, several hundred yards from the finish line, to watch GP races on TVs, find refreshments or use a restroom. The casino will have several automated tellers.
Officials of Calder and of Louisville, Ky.,-based CDI have not responded to e-mails and phone calls asking for comments about physical conditions for the GP West meet.
Along with others involved in thoroughbred racing, we have this question for Calder: If the Florida Legislature next year allows pari-mutuels to decouple (i.e. stop holding live events while keeping casinos and other gaming), will you attempt to end the lease agreement with Gulfstream that extends through 2020? We will explore that issue later in this article.
The home page photo (by Barry Unterbrink of Horseracingfla.com) for this article shows the view of the racing area from the west entrance.
“It looks like Beirut,” said J.J. Graci, a former thoroughbred trainer who with his wife Samm owns several horses stabled at Calder in barns that Gulfstream maintains under its lease.
The Graccis are hosts on Internet radio station WDBFradio.com for “It’s Post Time,” which airs live from Gulfstream each race from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
The adjacent photo is of a temporary three-story structure that Gulfstream out of necessity, has put up facing the Calder track.
The structure has space for members of Gulfstream management, stewards, placing judges, Equibase chart callers, film crews and announcer Chris Griffin (substituting for Pete Aiello). For the GP West meet, Aiello will be part of the analyst team for the Gulfstream TV show for simulcast outlets.
During the past week Aiello has made several announcements each race day, noting that there will be “limited amenities” at the GP West site and suggesting that fans instead come to Gulfstream to watch and wager on GP West races.
Other Gulfstream officials are making similar requests to individual fans, including some of the reulars in the Silks simulcast room on the first floor.
In addition, Gulfstream is running a full page notice in its program that says:
For Your Convenience, Watch and Wager on Gulfstream Park West and North American Races at Gulfstream Park.
The notice also states that at GP West (Calder) there will be: No simulcast wagering or amenities and limited mutuel machines.
In 2014, the first year for the GP West meet, fans were allowed to bet and watch races on the first floor of Calder’s building. Last year, that building was closed to the public and there were two large tents with tellers, automated machines and TVs.
Gulfstream has leased the Calder racing operations through 2020. Gulfstream maintains the Calder track and turf course, and has leased the 430 remaining stalls at Calder.
For handle takeout purposes, bets made at Gulfstream on GP West are treated the same as bets made at Calder on GP West races. In both cases, 50 percent of takeout goes to Gulfstream and 50 percent goes to the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association for use in race purses at meets run by Gulfstream.
When Gulfstream sends out GP West and Gulfstream signals to simulcast outlets (such as racetracks and ADWs), there is a one-third, one-third, one-third division of takeout among Gulfstream, the Florida HBPA and the entity taking the signal.
So it is understandable why Gulfstream wants South Florida fans to go to Gulfstream to bet on GP West races.
GP West Handle
Average daily all-sources handle for the GP West meet was $3.0 million in 2014, its first year, and $3.6 million in 2015.
Gulfstream in 2014 suggested the use of the Gulfstream Park West name, and Calder accepted it. CDI wants to end Calder’s association with horse racing. Gulfstream wants to avoid using the Calder name, which has a stigma with many fans and with many horsemen who are disgruntled about treatment they received at that track.
The situation at Calder is part of the long-standing animosity between CDI and The Stronach Group, the Aurora, Ont.-based parent of Gulfstream.
And there is a viewpoint, on which Gulfstream officials will not comment, that Calder and CDI are trying to make things difficult at the GP West for which they have no financial incentives. Gulfstream pays all costs for running the GP West meet and receives all proceeds from it.
The lease agreement is part of the settlement of a bitter racing dates dispute between Calder and Gulfstream, which was aggressively seeking to expand its racing schedule.
The two tracks raced head-to-head on Saturdays and Sundays from July 1, 2013 through June 30, 2014. Gulfstream’s handle was consistently at least three times larger than Calder’s handle.
They settled the dispute in June 2014. The deal gives Gulfstream exclusive race dates from December through September.
The Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering agreed to allow the lease in order for Calder to comply with a state law that requires at least 40 race dates at Calder for CDI to keep its license for the Calder casino.
But by next year, Calder might be able to keep a casino without having racing on site.
The Florida Legislature will meet from March 7 through May 5. If decoupling is not lost in a shuffle of other gaming issues, it is widely expected that the Legislature will pass and Gov. Rick Scott will sign a bill approving it effective July 1, 2017.
If Calder ends the lease, Gulfstream would be free of some headaches but otherwise in a quandary.
Terms of the lease have not been made public. But it likely that Calder will try to end it, with Gulfstream officials thinking “good riddance” if it can accept financial terms of a lease break.
But Gulfstream would then face a quandary because it might not be feasible to have racing 12 months a year at Gulfstream, particularly on the turf course.
Shifting of some race dates to Hialeah Park could be a long-shot possibility. Hialeah, which now has quarter horse racing, also is seeking approval to decouple and not hold its own race meets. A key factor could be how much desire Hialeah owner John Brunetti Sr. has for a return of thoroughbred racing even on a limited basis.
So, it might be a situation where Gulfstream will take a three-week or four-week break from racing.
Meanwhile, South Florida’s racing community is preparing for what could be the final meet at Calder which opened in 1970.
The dirt track and turf course at Calder are under the care of Gulfstream superintendent Bill Badgett and his team. Gracci and other horsemen are telling us that both surfaces are in very good condition.
We will be on-site for coverage on opening day on Oct. 5. Until then, we will provide continuing coverage of the controversies surrounding the GP West meet.