02/28/2002 12:00AM

Can Cyndi Lauper build a better race fan?

Email

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - More than 24,000 people were at Gulfstream Park last Sunday, but the vast majority were not here because of the solid field of 3-year-old fillies assembled in the Davona Dale Stakes.

No, they were here to see a concert by Cyndi Lauper. And many of the same people who otherwise have very little interest in horse racing will be here Saturday to see Creedence Clearwater Revisited, or Gato Barbieri and Chuck Mangione on Sunday.

For the moment, the bad news for Gulfstream is that most of those customers are not paying much attention to the racing product. Track president and general manager Scott Savin said per-capita handle for concertgoers this year is $25.50.

"Two years ago, it was $12," Savin said.

The jury is still out on what long-term effects the weekend concerts will have on transforming casual fans into serious horseplayers. This year, the roster of musicians is stronger than ever, with such artists as the Commodores, REO Speedwagon, and Kansas.

While it is highly possible for concertgoers to not see a horse all day, the important part, said Savin, is that they are coming to Gulfstream Park, period, and hopefully having fun.

"I've had [racetrack veterans] get outraged about the concerts," Savin said. "I tell them, 'They're not sitting in your boxes, they're not eating in your restaurants, they're not standing in your lines, they're not getting in your way at all." Granted, if you have one of your regular players betting $200, then it's true he's worth eight concertgoers. But that's not the main issue here.

"The guy who's coming here for a concert most likely comes only on the weekend because he works during the week. Based on our demographics, he's likely to be a professional who, when he becomes more comfortable with the game, will have the wherewithal to become one of those $200 players."

Savin said Gulfstream is hosting concerts "to get people here. They're getting their foot in the pool. They just haven't dove in yet. Besides, it adds energy to the racetrack that wouldn't otherwise be here."

The problem of molding the man on the street into a horseplayer is nearly as old as racing itself. The familiar refrain is that racing's customer base is aging, that no young people are attending the races, but Savin said that "nobody wakes up on their 60th birthday and says, 'Well, I'm going to become a horse racing fan today.' With these concerts, we get college kids who we hope are having a positive experience and one day will have some money in their pocket and say, 'I'm going back.' "

As much as any time in its history, widening the customer base is critical to Gulfstream. While ontrack attendance, boosted by the weekend concert crowds, has remained level compared with 2001, ontrack handle is down 9 percent.

Moreover, daily all-sources handle is about $9.75 million, down 12 percent from last year. That means all-sources handle is off by about $1 million a day, or, through 50 days of racing, roughly $50 million, which is a major concern to Savin and his bosses at Magna Entertainment.

Savin said: "If you look at the other parimutuel facilities in south Florida - Dania [jai-alai], Pompano [harness], Palm Beach, and Hollywood [greyhounds] - they're all down more than we are in all-sources handle. The Dow Jones Industrials are down exactly 10 percent from this time a year ago.

"The local restaurants and hotels, the Broward Convention Center, the Fort Lauderdale Airport, they're all down by double-digits. Two other tourist-destination tracks, Fair Grounds and Tampa, also are down double-digits in all-source handle. I think that tells us we've all underestimated the effects of Sept. 11 and the overall downturn in the national economy."

Savin also said a poor start to the Gulfstream meet put them in an immediate hole - "I wasn't happy with the quantity and quality of the fields the first week here," he admitted - and that average field size is down from 8.9 to 8.3.

"I'm a huge believer in how field size translates to all-sources handle," Savin said. But he said the smaller pool of horses, because of the loss of about 600 stalls at Hialeah, from which Gulfstream is drawing this year has had only a negligible effect. "We're actually getting considerably more production [starts per stall] out of our 1,300 stalls here this year," he said. "Next year, it won't even be an issue because we will have at least 600 stalls ready at our new Boynton Beach training facility."

Savin said he strongly disagrees with anyone who says the quality of Gulfstream's racing is down this year.

"We've lost about 12 starters a day from Hialeah and we're down a little from Calder," he said. "We're up with the horses stabled here. I would think that represents a higher quality. The unfortunate thing is the overall field size."

Even with the discouraging business trends, Savin, whose family owned such standout racehorses as Mr. Prospector, Norquestor, and Technology, said Magna is committed to maintaining projected purse levels through the end of the meet, April 24.

"I'm a horseman at heart," he said. "I think it says something about our commitment to horsemen that despite the fact business is down as much as it is, we won't be cutting purses."

Homeister hurt in spill

Jockey Rosemary Homeister Jr. suffered a hairline fracture of her right arm in Thursday's second race at Gulfstream Park.

Homeister, a former Eclipse winning apprentice rider, was tossed and then stepped on by her mount, Tis Your Country, who stumbled badly upon leaving the gate at the start of the race. Homeister fractured the same arm in a riding mishap earlier in her career and still wears a steel plate to protect the injury. She is expected to be sidelined for six weeks according to doctors at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Fla.

Homeister won last Sunday's $100,000 Davona Dale Stakes aboard Ms Brookski and was scheduled to ride Castlebrook in Saturday's $200,000 Rampart Handicap.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch