01/30/2014 5:41PM

Gulfstream Park turns 75: From upstart to premier track

Barbara D. Livingston
After Frank Stronach bought Gulfstream in 1999, the track was rebuilt at a cost of $130 million, and a retail complex was later added.

For most of its 75 years, Gulfstream Park has been a glistening jewel in the crown of American racing, a winter destination place for the very best of the Sport of Kings. On Feb. 1, the venerable course in the Miami suburb of Hallandale Beach, Fla., will celebrate its diamond anniversary, and in the process, call forth memories of the many greats who ran, rode, and trained there . . . of milestones passed . . . of records broken. But in the beginning, who could have known? It is a story of pure survival.

Described by the New York Times in January 1939 as “Florida’s $1,400,000 racing experiment,” the track’s very existence raised some serious eyebrows. More than a few people questioned the common sense of 28-year-old owner-builder-president Jack Horning, a racing neophyte, for pouring such money into a facility located just 17 miles down the road from fan-favorite Hialeah Park. Loonier still was that Gulfstream – well-named for a fast-moving Atlantic current off Florida’s south coast – was expected to run concurrently with Hialeah early in its projected 40-day season, and after that, with Tropical Park, while offering significantly less purse money. Was the late Depression-era winter tourist trade so substantial it could support two racetracks at the same time? Would top stables bring their best runners to compete for meager purses? Would leading riders show up to ply their trade? Most racing insiders didn’t think so – and they were right.

Curious visitors turned out in large numbers on the afternoon of Feb. 1, 1939, to ogle the brand new track that had been erected, rather miraculously, in just less than two months. Approximately 18,000 fans passed through the turnstiles to watch Olympic ice skating champion-turned-movie star Sonja Henie cut the official opening ribbon, before pushing nearly a quarter of a million dollars through the betting windows – emphatically trumping Hialeah on that date in both statistical categories. It was a triumph for Horning, though a short-lived one; second-day attendance and handle plummeted to 3,500 and $66,000, respectively – about one-fourth the numbers posted cross-town at Hialeah. Day 3 told a similar story.

On Feb. 4, Horning abruptly pulled the plug on the meet, not long before the day’s racing was to start. Citing lack of operating funds, he incorrectly promised the halt would only be temporary. Media “I-Told-You-Sos” instantly cranked it up, among them Jeff Moshier of The Independent of St. Petersburg, who noted with the clairvoyance of Zoltar that Gulfstream could not possibly have competed with Hialeah or Tropical Park. “It was a foregone conclusion that the new track would fold. The project was,” he wrote, “a sad and colossal blunder.”

:: Gulfstream Park turns 75 – Special Section

Moshier lived another 37 years, long enough to realize how wrong he had been. The “colossal blunder” not only returned to compete with its nearby rivals, but would long outlast them both as a Thoroughbred racing operation of the highest order.

Gulfstream Park never ran another race under Horning’s stewardship, and, in fact, languished into the 1940s, mired in litigation and restricted by a wartime ban on pleasure driving. But in 1944 things changed.

Scottish-born James Donn Sr., a Miami florist and landscaping millionaire, and one of the track’s many creditors, stepped dramatically into the void. Possessed of both the finances and the gambler’s will necessary to breathe life back into a dead enterprise, he organized a syndicate to acquire the abandoned, weed-choked facility, then set himself up as head of the new Gulfstream Park Racing Association – thereby launching a 60-year connection between the racetrack and his family.

Donn’s formula for success was simple: “Give the public what it wants.” What they wanted, he believed, was convenience, comfort, affordability, entertainment, and a chance to win some money. He would provide all of that in spades, while aggressively promoting his new endeavor as “The Most Beautiful Race Course Under the Tropic Sun.”

After a nearly five-year hiatus, Gulfstream Park reopened on Dec. 1, 1944, for a 20-day meet that this time would stay the course, averaging $281,902 in handle and 4,500-plus visitors a day. If not an out-of-the-park rocket shot, those figures represented at least a solid double – and there would be plenty of home runs to come.

In 1972, the year Tropical Park faded into history, Gulfstream Park was offering a record Florida purse schedule of $3.4 million. In 2001, when Hialeah closed the door on Thoroughbred racing, its upstart neighbor showcased Florida Derby winner Monarchos – the 19th eventual Kentucky Derby victor to emerge from that now-Grade 1, million-dollar race.

Since its rebirth, the track that initially attracted only mediocre horses, second-tier stables, and third-rate jockeys has become one of the world’s great racing centers. Gulfstream has to date hosted three Breeders’ Cups and numerous classic winners and champions, including nearly 50 Racing Hall of Fame runners – among them, Kelso, Swaps, Northern Dancer, Bold Ruler, and Spectacular Bid. It was here in 1990 that Bill Shoemaker scored the last of his then-record 8,833 victories . . . where seven years later, trainer Frank Passero Jr. saddled 14 consecutive winners  . . . where Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey chose to close out his career in 2006. Movies have been filmed at this picturesque course, and music history was made here in 1968 when Jimi Hendrix rocked it out in the infield at the Miami Pop Festival.

Moshier and others from the early days would not recognize the Gulfstream Park of 2013, except, perhaps, for those royal palms that still dot the premises – though now, much taller. A top-flight turf course was installed in the late 1950s, and in 2004 the main track was expanded from eight to nine furlongs. Renovations over time have modernized and beautified the plant from top to bottom.

The once-bankrupt racetrack has been owned and operated since 1999 by a group led by Frank Stronach, who put up $95 million for the privilege. A year-round racino presently occupies the first two floors of the clubhouse, complete with slots, electronic gaming tables, and live-action poker, and in 2010 a $1.2 billion onsite retail/entertainment complex was unveiled. Both racino and shopping center have become important destination sites in their own rights, but horse racing still remains the heart and soul – the very core of Gulfstream Park.

Mr. Miami More than 1 year ago
Doesn't Mr.Stronach have a plan in place to expand the grandstand seating so that they could accommodate the Breeders cup?
Old timer More than 1 year ago
I attended the races on a Thursday last month. As some have noted, there are not many seats compared to the old grandstand. This may make it more intimate and not seem empty, but for the weekends and the big days it seems to me that overall this design is a negative. I do give them credit for a very close up atmosphere to the horses and jockeys and trainers. I guess any change has its pluses and minuses.
1971 Whippet More than 1 year ago
Did you ever sit outside at the races? At Atlantic City, Churchill Downs or the old Rockingham Park (my favorite), even Keeneland before the PA system....what a great way to spend time at the races. Gulfstream or the new Aqueduct? Might as well stay home.
David Manger More than 1 year ago
yep..Stay home and melt in your chair and watch more television and gain another fifty pounds and just keep sitting there now ya hear...
GQ More than 1 year ago
Cannot wait until Churchill pulls t points from the Florida Derby and gives them to the Calder Derby. It is coming people. Churchill hates Magna. And the Calder Gulfstream summer fight is just start. George in Naples
Brian Russell More than 1 year ago
That won't happen for one very important reason. If Churchill takes the points away from the traditional Gulfstream preps, I guarantee you The Stronach Group would petition the American Graded Stakes Committee to have the Kentucky Derby stripped of it's Graded status due to it becoming a restricted race (and they would be 100% right in doing so).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The winter meet at Gulfstream is my favorite largely due to the road to the Florida Derby and then the Kentucky Derby. I love this time of year. I wish the Breeders Cup would come back here.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
I'll second that, I LOVE Gulfstream Park, excellent racing, excellent fields, great turf races, great payouts, always looking forward to Fla Derby, can only stream it on my notebook, but thanks to broadband, watching the races is a pleasure...Joel booted home a few today, Johnny V brings in a box car, and you know Julien Leperoux would get that 10 home on the turf today, Joey Rocco was riding well, filled in a nice exacta!!! Luis won a pair, and Jersey Joe booted a nice winner home, too, great day, love it..
Turnbackthealarm More than 1 year ago
I think the new Gulfstream is beautiful, spotless and a lovely way to spend the day. The new management is very fan friendly and all the employees hospitable. Indeed, it will never host another Breeder's Cup due to the diminished seating capacity, but, what it loses in that one event, it gains almost every other day it is open, except for a few marquee stakes dates. When you visit this track, you don't feel like a degenerate in a 90% empty facility. By keeping it small for live attendance, Gulfstream has mitigated the hollow emptiness of so many other tracks. How depressing is Aqueduct, Belmont and Santa Anita on an average weekda?. You won't feel that at Gulfstream. On another note, take a look at the backstretch housing, it is new, neat and well kept.
mikey More than 1 year ago
Being inside to watch a race is not going to the track.Yes it is clean and pretty but the quality is not what it used to be.Ten years ago you never saw cheap claimers and second rate jocks like today.
geno More than 1 year ago
Gulfstream winter meet has BY FAR the best jockey/trainer colony for any meet except Saratoga!
mikey More than 1 year ago
Yes Gulfstream was a great place.Now with no place to sit this is nothing but a fancy simo joint with a casino.Shame how they killed a first class track for shops and slots.You can pay from 10-40 $ for a seat in the tele theather.What a joke.Stronach ruined a great place for the racing fans.
Matthew Ellis More than 1 year ago
He did a heck of a lot for the horsemen. Stable help who was living in barns and made them humane/respectable living quarters. Maybe the direction is not everyones way but He has tried to improve the industry and has an immense passion for racing
David Manger More than 1 year ago
I agree with you. Everything he did there was a huge improvement and had he not stepped up to the plate and bought the place, there is no telling what number of condominiums would be there now as opposed to the beautiful outdoor/indoor arena we now have.Let us not forget the free concerts that have gone on there for years..Nice to stroll onto the grounds and see that three dog night is on the venue..That is just one of many over the years that has been able to be seen and heard by any and all that wanted to attend and it cost not one dime..I call that a good day..
Jerseyjoe B More than 1 year ago
Great memories. Nothing better than the pre-Stronach facility, where you could sit out back, by the paddock in the sun, on lawn chairs provided by the track. Tote board right there. On the clubhouse side, the jocks walked right by after each race on the way to the jock's room. And Ross Morton's baritone voice.
allen abbott More than 1 year ago
love the track but the main problem i have with Gulfstream is that the seats are out of the sun. It is the sun that brings people to South Florida and sitting in the shade at the track while sitting at the beach is always a tough judgement call. Therefore i only go on cloudy or cooler days. I would get rid of the roof and the mediocre Chinese restaurant and get rid of the expensive suites that are sitting empty on most racing days and open Gulfstream to the sun and the fans.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Beautified? C'mon Mary, that'sa stretch.
Bruce Epstein More than 1 year ago
Ghetto, tell this to the clowns who run the local simulcast outlet in Jacsonville, Fl, it's 98% low end ebonic's folk. They ax you dis and dat. It's a sure way to keep high end player out. Great job attracting folks to sit in your free AC and bet 10 cent supers. No VIP area to for those who do not kackle.
Mary Simon More than 1 year ago
Chad ... Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, to me Gulfstream is beautiful. In the year 2014 ... "survival" is beautiful. The fact that Gulfstream Park still stands and conducts Grade 1 Thoroughbred racing makes it a sight to behold in my eyes. Yes. It's beautiful.
David Manger More than 1 year ago
Good girl Mary!!