Updated on 09/16/2011 6:37AM

Finest east of the Rockies


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The big story in the local news here Thursday and Friday was the drastic weather conditions facing south Florida. Large and scary graphics of climactic upheaval accompanied stern advisories to the citizenry. Not only had the temperature dropped to an arctic 52 degrees but, as one newscaster warned, "If you're not wearing a windbreaker, it can feel even colder!"

We should all have such problems, but it wouldn't be Miami unless everyone was complaining about something. The same goes for the local winter racing season, which began with the Gulfstream Park opener on Thursday. For a visiting New Yorker who found the weather delightfully balmy, the Gulfstream kickoff was a splendid day of bettable racing and renewing acquaintance with the snowbirds who congregate here each winter. For the locals, though, the prospects for this season are even more chilling than that drop into the frigid 50's.

The concerns are whether there are enough good horses in South Florida this year for Gulfstream to maintain its standards, and whether there are enough horses of any quality to fill six-day-a-week cards for the next three months. It is way too soon to know how serious these worries are, but they have several factual bases: the extension of the Gulfstream meeting to a record 90 days; a shortage of stabling facilities because of the closing of Hialeah and delays in building a new training center; the absence of several top national outfits that have wintered here in the past; increased competition from the Fair Grounds in New Orleans; and a relative stagnation in Florida purse levels that may delay some horses' seasonal debuts until the richer Keeneland and Belmont meetings.

Almost all of these factors have their direct roots in the decades of competition among local tracks for the prime tourist-season racing dates, an almost tribal battle that consumed the industry here for much of the 1980's and 1990's. While the Thoroughbred interests were fighting one another year after year in Tallahassee, they failed to win legislative approval for year-round simulcasting at each facility that could have built up purses for the live meetings. Instead, the declining but more politically unified greyhound and jai alai facilities ensured their own short-term survival by capitalizing on the simulcast revolution.

Series of ownership changes, from sporting families to foreign interests and most recently to public companies, have made little difference. Whether it's the Donns, McKnights and Wideners or Churchill Downs Inc. and Magna Entertainment, it's still the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Meanwhile, philosophical changes in the training and campaigning of stakes horses have also worked against Florida's stature and its onetime monopoly on top-notch winter racing outside California. Top prospects for the Triple Crown are making fewer and later prep-race appearances than ever, and it has become likelier that the winter-book Derby favorite is pointing for the Santa Anita Derby than for the Hutcheson and Fountain of Youth, much less the defunct Bahamas or Flamingo.

Still, it's Florida in the winter, which remains not only preferable to a poke in the eye with a sharp stick but also one of the real rewards of the racing game, especially if the alternative is wintering where it's a lot colder than 52. It's still the land of stone crabs, sunburns, and psychedelic scenery. Horsemen who winter here can not keep a straight face when they try to call three months in the tropics a hardship.

At Gulfstream, delays in building both the offsite training center and a year-round amphitheater on the track grounds have prompted skepticism about Magna's level of commitment, but the place looks great and the management is making a real effort to broaden its product's local appeal. While dedicated horseplayers roll their eyes at the amount of effort Gulfstream puts into promoting pop concerts every weekend, these events are drawing people who have never been to the races and track officials say they are seeing meaningful crossover and increased betting by the newcomers each year. This season, they are intensifying these efforts with additional fan education and players-club programs.

It may well turn out that Gulfstream needs to run one or two fewer races a day than it currently does, which would not be a terrible thing. (Those 11-race programs are overwhelming anyway.) This would only bring it into line with other major tracks, and perhaps allow some sweetening of the purses. There may be a touch more Calder and a tad less Saratoga to the proceedings this year, but Gulfstream is still the best game in racing east of the Rockies this time of year - even when it's 52 in the shade.