01/30/2014 4:41PM

Gulfstream Park turns 75: From upstart to premier track

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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.