By Jim Freer and Barry Unterbrink
Despite the logistical nightmare at race site Calder Casino and amid weather-related disruptions, the Gulfstream Park West meet is slightly ahead of last year’s pace in total handle according to research by HorseRacingFLA.
And after three weeks, the meet sponsored by Gulfstream Park is ahead by bigger margins in handle per race and field size. But thus far, total race purses are down compared with 2015.
Gulfstream is not commenting on this year’s GP West numbers until later in the meet, which will end Nov. 27.
Our review of Equibase Co. charts shows that GP West this year had average daily all-sources handle (total handle) of $3.31 million for its first thirteen race days, through Sunday Oct. 23.
GP West races had daily average all-sources handle of $3.30 million for the comparable thirteen-day period last year.
Average all-sources handle per race is $355,250 this year. That is an 8.9 percent increase over the average of $329,806 for the same period last year. The number of races was 130 last year and 121 this year.
Total purse sizes fell 17 percent for the brief period measured, from about $3.0 million for 13 days in 2015 to about $2.5 million for 13 days in 2016. On a per race basis, the decline was 11 percent from $22,946 to $20,446.
Through this year’s 13 days, there were no stakes races. For the comparable period last year, there were two stakes races with $75,000 purses.
The average for starters per race is 8.1 this year, up from 7.8 through this stage in 2015.
On Saturday Oct. 22, GP West had its best handle of the current meet. On a rain-free day it did $4,303,614 in all-sources handle for ten races (six on turf, no stakes races). There were 84 starters.
GP West has consistently been fourth in recent weeks in handle among U.S. thoroughbred tracks. It trails the well-established meets at Belmont Park, Santa Anita Park and Keeneland. That indicates how GP West is continuing to build identity as a Gulfstream meet and not as a Calder meet.
The GP West meet will resume Wednesday Oct. 26, with racing Wednesdays through Sundays.
This is the third straight year in which Gulfstream is holding the GP West meet at Calder in Miami Gardens, under its lease of Calder’s racing operations.
GP West average field size was 8.4 horses in 2015. That number is not readily available for 2014.
GP West’s average daily average all-sources handle improved from $3.0 million in 2014 to $3.6 million last year. The 2014 meet had 44 race days, while the 2015 meet had 40 days.
As we will note below, November has been the stronger month for GP West.
All-sources handle consists of bets on a track’s races from these sources: live on-track; simulcast betting from other pari-mutuels and off-track betting (OTB) locations; Internet and phone Advance Deposit Wagering (ADW) services; Nevada sports books; and sports books in designated off-shore jurisdictions.
Dates Under Review
The handle numbers we reviewed for 2016 are for the thirteen race days between Saturday Oct. 8 and Sunday Oct. 23. The numbers for 2015 are for the thirteen days between Saturday Oct. 10 and Sunday Oct. 25.
In 2015, the GP West meet also had racing on the three days between Wednesday Oct. 7 and Friday Oct. 9.
For those three days, GP West had daily average total handle of $2.8 million and averaged 8.5 starters per race. Those days are not part of the 2015-2016 comparison for this article.
This year’s GP West meet was scheduled to open Wednesday Oct. 5, and to have 40 race dates.
But Hurricane Matthew was moving toward southeast Florida. When Gov. Rick Scott on Oct. 4 declared a state of emergency for all of Florida, Gulfstream announced that it was cancelling racing at GP West for the three days through Friday Oct. 7.
Gulfstream has not announced whether and when it will reschedule the three race dates. It will need approval from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering to cancel the dates or to pick specific new dates.
Hurricane Matthew brushed the Fort Lauderdale-Miami area with tropical storm force winds on Thursday Oct. 6. There was no significant damage to the barns and other parts of the properties at Gulfstream, Calder or Gulfstream’s affiliate Palm Meadows training center in Boynton Beach.
Since then, on three race days, a total of 15 GP West races were taken off turf because of rain. Our review of charts shows that GP West had no races taken off turf through this point last year.
The shift of races from turf to dirt resulted in numerous scratches, and loss of potential handle that cannot be determined.
Calder and its parent Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) are tearing down Calder’s seven-story grandstand/racing building in preparation for a planned redevelopment of portions of the property.
A central problem at Calder is that there are no covered structures for fans and just seven scattered machines and two-walk around tellers for placing a bet. Simulcast betting on other tracks is not available at Calder.
In 2014, fans were allowed on the first floor of Calder’s building for betting on live and simulcast races. Last year, there were two large tents where fans could do that wagering.
Before and since the start of the GP West meet, Gulfstream has been asking fans to come to its facility in Hallandale Beach, Fla., to watch and wager on GP West races and not go to Calder where it notes there are “limited amenities.”
Gulfstream is eight miles east of Calder.
Bets made at Calder on GP West races and bets made at Gulfstream on GP West races are treated as live for takeout purposes under Florida racing laws.
In both cases, half of the takeout goes to Gulfstream and half goes to the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association for race purses at Gulfstream-run races including the GP West meet.
On simulcasts of GP West races to other pari-mutuels, such as Hialeah Park, the takeout split is one/third each for Gulfstream, the Florida HBPA and the other pari-mutuel.
For Gulfstream and GP West races, the takeout is 17 percent on Win-Place-Show bets. It is higher on most exotic bets, but lower on several others.
On this year’s opening GP West day, Saturday Oct. 8, trainers Carlo Vaccarezza and Barry Rose both estimated that 600 people were in the racing area at Calder.
Many were apparently curiosity seekers. Since then, what we have seen live and via ADW shows crowds that were probably 200 or smaller.
Our colleague Sheldon Glass tells us that crowds in Gulfstream’s Silks simulcast area have been large on Saturdays, especially Oct. 8. As might be expected the simulcast-only crowd is smaller at Gulfstream on other days.
For the reasons listed above. we feel that this year’s GP West numbers are impressive.
Vaccarezza agrees with our assessment.
“The handle has been phenomenal,” he said. “This shows how Gulfstream has built a year-round brand that people (simulcast audience) recognize and like. Calder was averaging less than $2 million a day the last couple of years they had these dates to themselves.”
The last year for that long-standing arrangement was 2012.
Calder and Gulfstream raced head-to-head on Saturdays and Sundays between July 2013 and June 2014.
Calder in June 2014 agreed to stop holding race meets. In the settlement, Gulfstream leased Calder’s racing operations through 2020.
The Florida DPMW determined that Gulfstream’s holding a 40-day meet at Calder enabled CDI to meet its requirement of at least 40 race days a year to keep its license for the casino at Calder.
It is widely expected that in 2017 the Florida Legislature and Gov. Scott will allow pari-mutuels to decouple—i.e. stop having races on site while keeping casinos and other gaming.
Calder has said it would decouple. In that case, it likely would seek an early end to the Gulfstream lease. That would force Gulfstream to extend its ten months of racing, or perhaps arrange a deal to lease race dates to Hialeah while doing the annual fall spruce-up of its Hallandale Beach racing facility.
While breakdowns of sources of handle are not available for GP West, it is almost certain that simulcast betting and Advance Deposit Wagering (ADW) have been major reasons why GP West handle has thus far been similar to 2015.
Even during meets without circumstances like those at Calder, live handle is generally less than 10 percent of total handle at Gulfstream and other thoroughbred tracks.
We are among those who expect that GP West handle and field sizes will increase in November, just as in 2014 and 2015.
In November, the pace will pick up of trainers sending horses to South Florida for the winter.
GP West does not have any stakes races this month. In November, it will have stakes on three Saturdays. That includes Nov. 12 with the Millions Preview card and seven $100,000 stakes races restricted to Florida-breds.
Gulfstream on Dec. 3 will begin its five-month 2016-2017 championship meet at its track in Hallandale Beach.
Note — photos by Barry Unterbrink