02/08/2007 1:00AM

New Gulfstream geared more to slots than racing


HALLANDALE, Fla. – When Broward County voters approved the legalization of slot machines, Gulfstream Park was blessed. The devices, which went into operation in November, make Gulfstream the most important U.S. racetrack among those that have become “racinos.”

Revenue from slot machines has transformed moribund tracks such as Delaware Park and Charles Town in West Virginia into thriving enterprises. Meantime, tracks in states that have spurned slots – such as Laurel and Pimlico in Maryland – are continuing a slide to minor league status or oblivion. With the infusion of slot money, Gulfstream will be able to boost its purses and offer an improved racing product, a prospect that elates owners and trainers and ought to cheer fans. Yet whenever I walk through the track that used to be my favorite in the world, I wonder if horse racing has made a deal with the devil.

Like almost everyone who loved this place, I was appalled when Magna Entertainment Corp. razed the beautiful old Gulfstream and replaced it last year with a $181 million facility that is the most dysfunctional racetrack in America. I wrote a column blaming everything on Magna’s idiosyncratic chairman, Frank Stronach, and some bizarre ideas: eliminating all box seats, saddling horses in a claustrophobic tunnel instead of an open-air paddock, etc.

But with the racino in operation and the slot machines humming, I now can perceive that there was some method behind the madness. Much of the design of the racetrack was subordinated to the interests of the casino, or else designed with a casino sensibility.

Take the dining room, for example. Almost every racetrack dining room is tiered so all of the patrons can see the live races. In the age of simulcasting, most tracks put a television monitor on every table so that each customer can watch whatever races he or she wants.

When Stronach abolished box seats, he intended for many of his racing customers to sit in the Ten Palms dining room. But most tables don’t have a view of the live races and many don’t have a TV. The dining room seems designed to serve slot players more than racing fans. Since the casino went into operation, Ten Palms replaced a good and reasonably priced menu with an unexceptional buffet ($29.95 per person on weekends), apparently because there is something in the makeup of slot players that causes them to love all-you-can-eat buffets.

Or, for another example, take the fountain in the walking ring. At the old Gulfstream, the hub of the track’s social life could be found in the center of the walking ring, where owners and trainers gathered before each race. Now much of this space is occupied by a fountain. Why? At night, the fountain is illuminated by colored lights to make a dramatic sight for late-evening customers coming to play the slots.

The casino sensibility may explain the most bizarre and maddening part of Gulfstream’s reconstruction. Casinos are inward-facing, enclosed structures; almost never do they have windows, clocks, or anything else to remind their patrons that an outside world exists. Perhaps that is the reason why the new Gulfstream disregards its greatest natural asset: the climate.

The track has no satisfactory place for a horseplayer to spend the day under the blue Florida skies. The tiny grandstand is inadequate, with no television monitors. Virtually all of the dining areas are glass-enclosed and air-conditioned. The lack of proper outdoor seating provoked an outcry from Gulfstream’s patrons last winter, and Magna addressed the issue this year in a way that demonstrates its priorities.

For casino customers, Gulfstream has spared no expense. The slots parlor is elegant. Its centerpieces are a beautiful granite horseshoe bar and a spectacular 13,000-gallon aquarium that cost $100,000 to install. Customers playing the 25-cent slots do so in an area with nicely carpeted floors and upholstered chairs. But when Gulfstream added outdoor seating for its horseplayers in the “North Park” (if green-painted cement counts as a park), it installed an uncovered stand that looks as if it belongs at a junior high school athletic field.

Some racing fans worry that Gulfstream will go the way of the parimutuel facility 1 1/2 miles away. Hollywood Greyhound Track used to be the mecca of dog racing, but after slots were legalized it advertised itself as Mardi Gras Gaming and made almost no mention of the sport it featured for more than 70 years.

But Gulfstream’s new president, Bill Murphy, insists this won’t happen at the Thoroughbred track. Murphy, who came here by way of Thistledown in Ohio, is a racing man to his core as well as the first Gulfstream chief executive in many years with perceptible qualifications to run a track. He declared: “I don’t think slots will overtake racing here. The racing product is too good. Frank Stronach’s instructions to me were, ‘We’re first of all a racetrack.’ ” Murphy is aware of the major complaints of horseplayers – the lack of good outdoor seating, the shortage of TV monitors on which to watch simulcasts – and he says he’ll address them. So there may be hope for some improvement.

But the economics of the gambling business suggests that the slot-machine portion of most racinos will be dominant. While racing fans may grumble that they have become second-class citizens in the racino world, they need to be realistic and recognize that slots are important to the health of most tracks – particularly Gulfstream. The importance of Florida’s midwinter racing has been declining for years because the track can’t offer purses competitive with the top northern tracks. Moreover, Gulfstream’s long-range future always seemed uncertain because it would be much more valuable as a real-estate development than as a track operating four months a year. Slot machines ought to guarantee the track’s survival, even if it survives in a form that disappoints most of its longtime fans.

© 2007, The Washington Post