01/01/2003 12:00AM

New game plan: Win back the fans

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Magna Entertainment's No. 1 priority this winter at Gulfstream Park is to erase the memories of the track's disastrous 2002 season.

A lack of stall space precipitated by the close of the Hialeah Park barn area created a nearly 10 percent drop in average field size - from 8.8 starters per race in 2001 to 8.2 last season - as well as a conspicuous decline in the overall quality of the racing product. Compounding that problem was the economic effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which hurt the Florida tourist industry. The result was a decline in Gulfstream's average daily handle of more than 12 percent in 2002 compared with the corresponding dates from the previous meeting.

The drop in both the quality and quantity of horses came when Gulfstream was putting an emphasis on promoting its extensive concert schedule, which did not sit well with many fans and horsemen, who felt that the concert promotion came at the expense of the live racing program. Both the track and Magna Entertainment chairman Frank Stronach were harshly criticized by the press throughout the meet.

Gulfstream's top brass is the first to admit 2002 was a major disappointment. Both Corey Johnsen, Magna's newly appointed group vice president for Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma, and Scott Savin, Gulfstream Park's president and general manager, agree that last year was a disaster, not only fiscally but perceptually as well.

But Johnsen and Savin are equally confident Gulfstream will turn things around and rebound in a big way this winter.

"We've learned a lot from last year and I'm very confident we can bounce back from 2002," said Johnsen. "Palm Meadows" - the new training facility 40 miles north of Gulfstream - "became our first priority in the off season and Magna poured all its efforts and resources into that project. We realized that building additional stalls in a first-class setting was critical to our success considering the lack of field size last winter. In addition, the economic market is much sounder now than it was at this time a year ago, and the overall simulcast market has expanded since last season."

Savin also expects that several new promotions being implemented for the 2003 meet will help win back fan confidence.

"The fact we placed too much market emphasis on our entertainment program and not enough on the racing itself gave our core customer the perception that racing was no longer the priority at Gulfstream," said Savin. "So this year we are not only going to improve the live racing product but focus on different ways to make our customers feel more important. Such as, offering a daily pick four wager in response to what was the number one request from customers during the off season. And a rebate program that will not only reward our players for wagering on the live races but which also offers up to a 3 percent rebate over the course of the meet, which is triple the awards under the old plan."

Of course, if the 2002 meeting proved anything at all it was that without a solid live racing program, nothing else matters. Racing secretary Dave Bailey is brimming with enthusiasm at the prospects for the 2003 campaign.

Bailey, who was under the gun filling races last year due to an exhaustive racing schedule and the diminished horse population in the area, said his goal is to average between 8.8 and 9 starters per race this winter.

Bailey cited the return of some prominent outfits and the presence of some new stables, as well as the five-day schedule in January as factors he thinks will immediately increase field size.

Gulfstream also has an outstanding stakes schedule, topped by a 3-year-old program regarded by horsemen as among the best in the country. A meet-long series of races for 3-year-olds begins on opening day Friday with the six-furlong Spectacular Bid Stakes, and is capped by the Grade 1 Fountain of Youth and the $1 million Florida Derby.

Augmenting the stakes schedule will be the inaugural running of Magna's Sunshine Millions, a series of eight races restricted to California- and Florida-breds worth $3.6 million to be held at both Gulfstream and Santa Anita on Jan. 25. The $1 million Sunshine Classic, to be run at Gulfstream, is the highlight of the Sunshine Millions.

"We are extremely excited about the Sunshine Millions," said Savin. "Not only will it be a great single-event day, but because it took the cooperative efforts of six different groups within the industry to make it possible, it bodes well for the future of the sport on both coasts."

Despite all the optimism, Gulfstream and Magna still have a long way to go to satisfy their critics. Purses at Gulfstream remain well below the level of many of its main competitors. Some in the industry believe that Stronach is planning to expand his live racing schedule, which could put Gulfstream in head-to-head competition with nearby Calder Race Course, and that live racing eventually could be moved to Palm Meadows. Over the off season Magna abruptly ceased renovations at Gulfstream, which are supposed include the construction of a state-of-the-art simulcast facility adjacent to the grandstand.

"Now that we've completed the construction of the training center, we can turn our attention to other improvements at Gulfstream," said Johnsen. "But setting a timetable is difficult because it entails a considerable amount of analysis in several different areas. But we think Gulfstream Park is one of the finest racetracks in the world and our plan for the moment is to maximize that site and keep Palm Meadows exclusively a training center."

Johnsen also conceded the fact that racing dates are a complicated issue.

"Right now we want to do the best we can with a 90-day meet and we can't succeed by taking our eye off the ball and thinking about any other dates situation at the present time," Johnsen said.

Johnsen also confirmed that Magna is searching for ways to maximize purse distribution at Gulfstream.

"We are open to VLT [video lottery] legislation among other solutions," said Johnsen. "We have had numerous conversations with the horsemen, Calder, and other members of the parimutuel industry, and I am confident that we will eventually be able to find a common ground that will benefit all of us that we can take to the legislature."

But all that is in the future. For now, Gulfstream management is thinking only of the present, and that means wasting little time winning back the confidence and respect of the fans, horsemen, and the media. If they do not succeed this winter, they may not get another chance.