01/10/2008 1:00AM

Coming soon: More tracks like Gulf


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Florida horseplayers, and snowbirds who used to plan winter vacations around the racing there, will never forgive Magna Entertainment for transforming Gulfstream Park from a spacious and classical racetrack into a claustrophobic maze of a racino. Now in their third winter of discontent, the remaining regulars continue to complain about the facilities, which remain in a constant state of construction and rearrangement.

This year's fresh concern is parking, much of which has vanished as construction has begun on a new complex of retail shops and restaurants that will open in a year or two. If you want to beat the long walk and the congestion, you had better bring some extra cash: The valet fee is now $15 at the north end and $10 at the south, though the fee drops to $6 after 6 p.m. if you're going for the slots, poker, and night simulcasting instead of the live racing.

Such pricing does not help Gulfstream management's argument that it is dedicated to racing and trying to be responsive to customer complaints. Nor does the constant intrusion of Magna chairman Frank Stronach's promotion of his "Frank's Energy Drink" around the track. Last weekend, models in skimpy spandex lederhosen were handing out samples of the new lime and pineapple flavors of the taurine-laced heartbeat accelerator. Meanwhile, a promised new South Beach-style area to accommodate sunshine-seeking racegoers turned out to be a small rectangle of compressed sand with a tiki hut, and a sign reading "Frank's Energy Beach Opening Soon."

Yet to a visitor who had not spent a day at Gulfstream since Barbaro's Florida Derby 21 months earlier, there appeared to have been some legitimate improvements to the place. Don't go looking for a new grandstand or a spacious back yard; they're gone forever and all the complaining in the world won't bring them back. If you accept the new racino model of a track with dozens of different areas for different types of fans, each with a price tag, a day at the races is in some ways becoming more palatable.

The place is lathered in plasma televisions, and the ground-floor simulcasting area is of Las Vegas racebook quality, though a premium carrel goes for a stiff $10. The food is vastly improved, especially by the addition of Christine Lee's, a longtime North Miami Beach fixture, which has exclusively relocated to the track as its high-end restaurant ($23 for a plate of General Tso's Chicken). There are swanky new luxury boxes for owners and sponsors, a little bit more outdoor seating, and saddling stalls both next to the walking ring and in the cramped tunnel leading to it. A new management team led by Bill Murphy, who is also vice president of Thistledown for Magna, appears to be more popular with customers and horsemen than previous administrations.

The casino side of the operation has been as chaotic as the transformation of the racetrack, as management continues to shuffle locations and amenities in search of better business. To date, Gulfstream has had trouble finding a steady audience for its slots, which last year registered a lower profit per machine than even the downmarket Mardi Gras (formerly Hollywood Dog Track) up the road, much less the high-end Seminole Hard Rock Casino 20 minutes away. Magna's hope is that the new retail complex, and eventually an onsite resort hotel, will allow it to compete for casino customers, but that seems a long way off. Hard Rock has daily poker tournaments with a $350 to $1,100 buy-in. Gulfstream's poker parlor - the third incarnation of a room that began as an "exotic dancing" club with strippers' poles and then became a Latin nightclub - had three $1-to-$4 games going last Saturday afternoon.

For all the change and ongoing transition, the racing product is similar to what it has always been. The first half of most cards is populated with cheaper year-round runners from Calder, but this was also the case a decade or two ago. The suddenness and severity of the changes at Gulfstream have made many longtime patrons romanticize the quality of Gulfstream racing in the past - and they may be doing the same thing with their sense of loss over the old facility.

In truth, Gulfstream was never a marvel of tropical elegance. It was a sterile and cavernous place with all the charm of the Fort Lauderdale airport. If you want to get weepy about a racing paradise lost, weep for Hialeah, its flamingos, aquarium, palm-lined drives, and miles of marble. Back in the days when Gulfstream and Hialeah scrapped each year to be awarded the prime midwinter dates, the only fans rooting for Gulfstream to get them were the ones for whom it was a shorter drive.

Whether you despise what Gulfstream Park has become or can find yourself a happy spot there as it slowly improves, there's another sobering reality: A decade from now, when slots have come to New York, Kentucky, and elsewhere, a lot of other racetracks are going to start looking more like the new Gulfstream than the old one.