08/04/2017 1:16PM

Dog days now days of plenty at Gulfstream

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – For nearly 40 years, Joe Orseno has spent his summers at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. But no more.

With the option of staying year-round in Florida becoming more feasible for horsemen in recent years, Orseno now lives in Davie, a 20-minute drive from Gulfstream Park.

“It’s been a great move for me,” said Orseno.

A revised south Florida racing calendar not only has altered the lives of Orseno and numerous other trainers and their employees, but perhaps more significantly, it has changed the betting habits of horseplayers as well. Long the premier simulcast signal in America during the winter, when most of its four-month championship meet takes place, Gulfstream has become entrenched as the No. 3 signal in wagering handle at other times of the year, behind only the New York Racing Association and Southern California tracks.

A combination of circumstances has led to this. The massive layout of its turf course and favorable weather affords Gulfstream the opportunity to offer more turf races annually than any other track. Turf races, inherently popular with bettors, typically draw large fields, which further drives handle. Smaller tracks might try to use the same template, but none has the marketing cachet that the Gulfstream brand brings to the table, and therein lies a major key to its success.

“If you give me a brand name with what I want, I’m going to go there,” said Jerry Tannenbaum, a Gulfstream regular who describes himself as a lifelong horseplayer. “Most bettors are not purists. They want to make a lot of money betting a small amount if they can, and that’s why they prefer the big fields. Over time, Gulfstream has built their name into a powerful brand with their winter racing, and now it’s carried over to other times of the year.”

In 2015, Gulfstream averaged $4.32 million in all-sources handle per day for its spring meet (early April to late June) and $8.91 million for the summer meet (early July to late September). In 2016, those figures rose 11 percent and 10 percent, to $4.6 million in the spring and $9.76 million in the summer. At the 2017 spring meet, handle averaged $5.29 million, up 15 percent over the previous year, and handle into this week at the summer meet is tracking ahead of last summer, according to P.J. Campo, vice president of racing and general manager at Gulfstream.

“It’s all been a huge success for us so far,” Campo said.

Gulfstream doesn’t always have the third-largest handle during certain non-winter months – the short Keeneland meets and the Churchill Downs spring meet (buoyed by Kentucky Derby weekend) draw higher handle – but on balance, Gulfstream outdoes Monmouth, Laurel, Arlington, Golden Gate, and all the rest. Calder at its peak typically was in the same ballpark with those next-level tracks, but Gulfstream has surged clearly ahead of them.

It was in 2013 that track owner Frank Stronach, looking to maximize his massive investment in the Gulfstream property, began running head to head against its crosstown rival, Calder, which since the early 1970s had run the lion’s share of race dates every year in Florida. Following a sustained and highly contentious period – and there were plenty of critics of his bravado and motives – Stronach ultimately entered into a complex leasing arrangement in May 2014 with Churchill Downs Inc., the owner of Calder, and renamed the track Gulfstream Park West.

Now, the annual Florida racing calendar consists of 10 months, or about 190 dates, at Gulfstream and two months, or about 40 dates, during October and November at Gulfstream West.

Even though Gulfstream fares so well with its spring and summer meets, the everyday racing product is neither glamorous nor particularly riveting. The vast majority of races are claiming and/or maiden races, either on the turf and/or for 2-year-olds. With fewer ship-ins than in other regions, form becomes homogenous and nearly indistinguishable from one horse to the next.

The stakes schedules are sparse; five weeks lapsed from the July 1 Summit of Speed to the Florida Sire Stakes events this weekend, and it will be another four weeks until the next six-figure races are run Sept. 2. Some afternoons at Gulfstream seem to drag on forever, with 13 or 14 races carded on the occasional Saturday, and a built-in five-to-10-minute post-time delay has become a source of constant annoyance to some fans.

Still, all things considered, Gulfstream scarcely could be doing any better.

“The championship meet will always be that, with all the great trainers and riders who come in for the winter,” said Campo, who came to Gulfstream from NYRA in late 2013. “Our mission when we expanded was, ‘How do we build on that?’ Now we’re third behind only California and New York, and that’s a big deal. It’s something that Mr. Stronach had a vision for.”

The ongoing transformation of the circuit has translated to greater stability for hundreds of year-round employees, both for Gulfstream and its horsemen. Orseno joins Ralph Nicks and a handful of other trainers to make Gulfstream their permanent base after having shuttled for years between Florida and Northern tracks, while even more trainers such as Mike Maker, Mark Casse, Terri Pompay, and Steve Klesaris have set up year-round partial strings here.

“This is my first summer in Florida since 1979, and knowing I don’t have to pack up and go somewhere else soon, it’s total relaxation,” said Orseno. “You can’t hardly do that anywhere else, and it’s because of the way they’ve got things set up here now. People love the Gulfstream product. They have a great following. It’s all pretty amazing to me.”