Updated on 09/17/2011 9:50AM

Lesson learned, Gulfstream is doing it right


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - One year ago, almost every racing fan who loves Gulfstream Park was in a state of abject despair.

Gulfstream had for years offered the most interesting, challenging racing in America. While the sport elsewhere was plagued by small fields with minimal betting interest, Gulfstream regularly carded wide-open 12-horse races with horses drawn from tracks throughout the East and Midwest.

But when Gulfstream opened for its 2002 season, it immediately became evident that something was drastically wrong. One day the track put on a 10-race card populated by a total of 61 horses. Day after day, the fields were small, the races were boring, and the customers were repelled. As simulcast customers turned their attention elsewhere, wagering on the Gulfstream's races plummeted a stunning $1 million a day compared to the previous year's figures.

Gulfstream's executives blamed a shortage of horses on the shutdown of the Hialeah stable area, but the problem went deeper. The track management made no effort to bolster the size of fields by cutting down on the number of races it carded. It seemed to care more about its weekend concert series - aimed at new, young customers - than it did about its core product and core fans.

Whenever I interviewed track president Scott Savin or executives of the parent company, Magna Entertainment, they seemed to be in denial, refusing to recognize that Gulfstream's problems were partly of their own making. I was one of those fans driven to deep despair. The winter racing season had been the main focus of my gambling since the 1970's, and I was wondering what I would do with the rest of my life.

In view of this background, readers of the Daily Racing Form were surely surprised and heartened when they saw this headline on opening day at Gulfstream: "New game plan: Win back the fans." Savin was no longer in denial. He acknowledged: "Our core customers [had] the perception that racing was no longer the priority at Gulfstream Park."

One of the factors that spurred this awareness was the black eye Magna Entertainment received after the 2002 season. The company was actively acquiring tracks from coast to coast, but the Gulfstream results made plenty of doubters wonder whether Magna really knew how to operate a racetrack. Stock analysts cited the 2002 disaster at Gulfstream. So, too, did dubious racing commissioners, horsemen, and journalists when Magna was on the verge of acquiring the two Maryland tracks, Laurel and Pimlico.

Corey Johnsen, a Magna vice president who oversees Gulfstream, said management was "like a good ball club that lost a couple of games and rededicated themselves to winning. They were absolutely set to making improvements."

Chastened after the results of 2002, the management of Gulfstream and Magna have been making all the right moves this winter. The construction of a lavish new training center - Palm Meadows - has bolstered its horse population. Instead of trying to run the maximum number of races until it stretches the horse population thin, Gulfstream opted to run only five days a week during January, producing bigger fields and wide-open betting races. On opening day, 105 horses ran in the 10 races and the average payoff in six superfectas was more than $9,000.

The track has made a clear effort to appeal to serious players. It added a pick four and more superfectas to its wagering menu; it guaranteed a $100,000 pool in the pick six one day; it enhanced a rebate program for big bettors. And it de-emphasized promotion of the weekend concerts that had become the focus of many fans' anger.

This is an especially delicate subject for Gulfstream and for Magna, because the company's chairman, Frank Stronach, preaches that racetracks should be multipurpose entertainment centers so they can reach out to new fans. But Gulfstream's efforts to promote entertainment went berserk last year, as exemplified on the day of the Florida Derby. Two leading 3-year-olds, Booklet and Harlan's Holiday, had thrilling battles in two prep races, and now they were meeting in the state's richest race. Yet not a single advertisement in newspapers, radio, TV, billboards, or even the track's in-house television ever mentioned Booklet or Harlan's Holiday. Every ad focused on Loverboy and Styx, the two rock groups that were performing that afternoon. No wonder fans were resentful. Gulfstream had forgotten about horse racing.

The change in attitude toward entertainment was manifested last Saturday, when Gulfstream and its sister track, Santa Anita, jointly staged the Sunshine Millions, a day of rich stakes races open to horses bred in Florida and California. At Gulfstream, there was virtually nonstop entertainment throughout the day, including a concert by the folk-rock group America. Yet Gulfstream's advertising and promotion of the Sunshine Millions focused on the races, and at the track all of the diversions were presented as a sidelight to the main event. The day was about horse racing. While casual racegoers presumably enjoyed the festivities, I didn't hear any regulars grumbling about the concert and the rest of the hoopla.

The return to basics has paid off. Gulfstream drew 18,719 people to the Sunshine Millions and the card generated $15.7 million in total handle. Overall, wagering is back to pre-2002 levels. Perhaps the key to the racing business is to offer a good product and to heed the desires of the customers. What a concept!

(c) 2003, The Washington Post