Updated on 09/16/2011 6:56AM

Fiddling while Rome burns

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - As another uninteresting race with a small field was being run at Gulfstream Park, I retreated to the area by the paddock to enjoy the sunshine, one of the racetrack's unspoilable assets. Gulfstream stages rock concerts in this location on weekends, and as one was about to begin, marketing director David Rovine addressed the crowd.

"This is the last year we'll be having the concerts in this location," he said. "Next year we'll have a stage at the other end of the track. It's part of a three-to-five-year renovation program here at Gulfstream."

An appropriate analogy immediately sprang to mind: This is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Gulfstream is worrying about a new venue for REO Speedwagon and Cyndi Lauper when its basic product is going to hell.

This has been a winter of discontent at Gulfstream. At the track once known for big fields, wide-open races, and bountiful betting opportunities, a sharp decline in the quality of racing has disheartened and alienated horseplayers across the country. Monday's program consisted of two eight-horse fields and the rest with seven or fewer - most of them of poor quality. Simulcast bettors who used to concentrate on Gulfstream races have turned away, and wagering has declined by nearly $1 million a day compared with last year - a staggering drop of around $50 million. Scott Savin, the track's president, acknowledged, "We got off to such a bad start that a lot of simulcast players, after three days, said: 'I'm refocusing.' "

The decline of Gulfstream ought to raise questions about the philosophy of Gulfstream's owner, Frank Stronach, and his management - a philosophy symbolized by the weekend concerts.

Stronach believes that racetracks should be more than racetracks; they should be entertainment centers that can attract a diverse clientele - not merely horseplayers. Gulfstream's motto is now "World Class Racing and Entertainment." The five-year plan for a totally rebuilt Gulfstream includes a simulcast pavilion (only half of it devoted to racing, the rest to sports), a concert arena, and a redesigned paddock with shops and cafes, all designed to lure new customers.

The weekend concerts antedated the purchase of the track by Stronach's Magna Entertainment Corp. but they fit perfectly with his philosophy. The shows, mostly by past-their-prime rock stars, are aimed at attracting young fans, whom the track gives a $2 betting voucher and a little education about the sport.

Although many curmudgeonly racetrack regulars grumble about them, the shows inject some vitality into a day at the races, and their aim is a worthy one: to broaden racing's audience. The track doesn't make a profit from the shows but puts them on because it believes that bringing newcomers to the track will help the long-term interest of the sport.

All of this would be admirable if Gulfstream didn't seem to have its priorities out of kilter. There seems to be more planning and professionalism behind the concert series than the racing product. There is considerably more advertising and promotion of the concerts. (Some ads barely mention that horse racing is conducted at the concert site.) And while the track is willing to forgo short-term profits from the concert series in the pursuit of long-term benefits, it won't do the same for horse racing.

Gulfstream's racing faced some predictable problems this winter. The closing of Hialeah Park and its stable area meant that the track had a smaller horse population from which to draw. The only way to keep up the quality and the size of the fields was to run fewer races, but Gulfstream wouldn't do it; it persists in scheduling 60 or more races a week. Savin was candid about the reasons. "If we substantially cut races," he said, "we will cut profits. For us to cut back is not in the best interest of the stockholders."

Yet for the sake of short-term profits, Gulfstream has put on such a miserable show that it may have inflicted lasting damage on itself. America's horseplayers have always regarded Gulfstream as a special place and eagerly awaited the start of its season. After this year's debacle, they will not think there is anything special about this track.

If the concerts represent an error in priorities on a small scale, then part of Stronach's grand plan for a new Gulfstream is an error on a grand scale. The track does need additional stalls to make up for the loss of Hialeah, and construction has begun on a training center in Boynton Beach. (With its 600 stalls in use next season, Savin predicted, "Gulfstream will be special again.") The track sorely needs a proper facility for simulcasting.

But for Magna to invest its money and energy in an entertainment center, a new paddock area, and other renovations is a needless distraction. Most of Gulfstream's facilities are quite pleasant as they are, and its paddock area is one of the nicest in the sport. Nobody spurns this racetrack because he dislikes the infrastructure. Stronach's notion that live attendance is going to be stimulated by trendy cafes around the paddock is delusional.

Most of Gulfstream's loss of revenue this winter has come from the drop in simulcast betting - by customers who don't patronize the track and only care about its racing product. Stronach, Savin, and the rest of the Magna organization might start focusing on the basics the way the Clinton campaign did in 1992. It's not the concerts. It's not the paddock. It's the racing, stupid

(c) 2002, The Washington Post