Florida racing makes comeback

When Gulfstream announced that it was going to extend its traditional winter racing season and race year-round it looked like management there had spent far too much time out in the Florida sun. Gulfstream worked because it ran in Florida in the winter, which meant getting most of the best horses, jockeys and trainers from the frigid Northeast and Midwest and the undivided attention of simulcasting players everywhere. Gulfstream in July seemed every bit as cock-eyed an idea as Saratoga in February.

Still, the team run by Frank Stronach and Tim Ritvo pushed ahead and Gulfstream began its new era July 1, 2013. The results that day were predictable: it was hot (88 degrees), the racing was lousy, the fields were small and only $2.5 million was bet on an eight-race card.

Behind the scenes Gulfstream knew that it would get off to a slow start. Not only were they trying something radically different but they were going head-to-head with Calder, the track that had traditionally had the summer Florida dates and was just eight miles across town. But they thought Calder, which is run by Churchill Downs, would wave the white flag almost immediately. Churchill Downs is not a racing-friendly company and many guessed it couldn't close Calder fast enough as long as it could keep a casino there.

Churchill got what it wanted, essentially ridding itself of running a racetrack it wanted no part of. Gulfstream got full control of racing in South Florida. The horsemen got a management partner that cares about the sport and wants to see it thrive.

But Calder/Churchill proved to be more stubborn than anyone expected and the result was two tracks running at the same time, vying for the same small pool of horses. Calder got hit hardest and the racing there was dreadful. But Gulfstream didn't do much better. And the year-round schedule seemed to take its toll on the prime winter meet. With no opening and closing day, the winter meet didn't have the same feeling to it.

Eventually Gulfstream's patience and persistence were rewarded. The two tracks reached an agreement where both would operate, but never head to head, and Gulfstream would manage the racing operation at Calder and Churchill would be allowed to worry about the casino there and nothing else. As of now, there will be 190 days of racing a year at Gulfstream and 40 at Calder.

Everybody has come out a winner. Churchill got what it wanted, essentially ridding itself of running a racetrack it wanted no part of. Gulfstream got full control of racing in South Florida, extending its stabilizing influence throughout the entire calendar. The horsemen got a management partner that cares about the sport and wants to see it thrive, which wasn't the case with Churchill. Already Gulfstream has instituted a 10 percent purse increase and a starter incentive program.

HBPA President Phil Combest told the Daily Racing Form. "A purse increase, starter incentive, the best field sizes in the country, and a track that is marketing and publicizing the sport. Why wouldn't we be optimistic?"

The biggest winner has been Florida racing. Before the conflict, it had Gulfstream and a struggling track run by an unmotivated management team. During the conflict it had two tracks, both struggling for betting dollars while finding it near impossible to put on decent cards.

Since the conflict was resolved toward the beginning of July the difference has been remarkable, and Gulfstream racing in the summer is a lot better than anyone ever imagined it could be. Behind Saratoga and Del Mar, it's the third best racing product on a daily basis in the United States right now.

Gulfstream now races four days a week and has consistently put out a good product since it has the run of the horse populations from both tracks. Last Saturday they averaged 9.54 horses per race and on Sunday the average was 10. Saturday's handle exceeded $5 million. Those aren't Gulfstream-in-the-winter numbers but they are considerably better than what Calder would have produced on a similar day when it raced without local competition.

Racing will shift to Calder in the fall, which will give Gulfstream a much needed break. They'll be able to stay off the turf course and have it perfect for the premier meet and the gap in the schedule will differentiate between the summer meet and the winter meet, which will do wonders for the winter meet brand. Just as exciting is the possibility that the Calder-Gulfstream deal could pave the way for the return of thoroughbred racing to Hialeah. Team Stronach cares about the sport and understands that racing needs a track as special as Hialeah to have a place on the racing calendar.

The last year wasn't good for anyone, but it was worth it. Gulfstream persevered, and the result is a much brighter future for South Florida racing.