06/30/2004 11:00PM

Plans for rebuilt track include longer meet

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Frank Stronach outlined plans for the renovation of Gulfstream Park, talked about expanding the racing season there in the next two years, and mentioned the possibility of eventually operating a race meet at the Palm Meadows training center in a meeting with reporters and representatives from the Florida Division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association on Wednesday evening.

Stronach, chairman of Magna Entertainment Corp., the racetrack conglomerate that owns Gulfstream Park, made his comments less than 48 hours after construction crews had reduced the track's grandstand to a pile of rubble on Tuesday morning.

"That building was built for a different era," Stronach said of the old grandstand, which opened in 1939. "We're going to build a new racetrack the way a racetrack should be built, a world-class facility that will show how we're committed to bring racing back to the forefront where it should be."

The project, called The Village at Gulfstream Park, is not scheduled for completion until October 2006 and will include the rebuilt racetrack as well as a 650,000-square-foot shopping mall. Construction has already begun on a new mile-long, 160-foot-wide turf course patterned after the grass course that Magna built at Palm Meadows, its state-of-the-art training facility in Boynton Beach. In addition, the old one-mile dirt track will be replaced by a 1 1/8-mile main track. Stronach said both tracks would be ready for the opening of the 2005 Gulfstream season on Jan. 3.

Construction on the new grandstand will begin this summer but is not scheduled to be completed until September 2005. As a result, the 2005 meeting will be run using tents and other temporary structures. Stronach said he expects business will be "a little down" this winter and will depend a lot on the weather.

"Our first idea for this project was to build the best turf course in the world," said Stronach.

Stronach was critical of the old course: "It was not even seven-eighths of a mile, was too narrow, and had terrible drainage. With the new course being 160 feet wide, we'll be able to run four or five turf races every day and offer world-class grass racing. To accommodate the larger turf course, we are building an expanded main track that will extend over the area that was the old grandstand."

Stronach compared the new three-story grandstand, which he said would accommodate up to 15,000 patrons, to a Las Vegas casino.

"We're going to install new state-of-the-art parimutuel machines that look and act like slot machines," said Stronach. "We'll synchronize the post times for all our simulcast outlets so we can offer a race every couple of minutes to give the players quick action. Just like a casino. The new machines will even have whistles and bells that will go off every time they cash a bet, just like the slots in Vegas."

Stronach put the cost of the new grandstand, the two racetracks, and additional dormitories and barns to be constructed this summer at $140 million. He said that to justify that type of investment, along with the $90 million he spent on the construction of Palm Meadows, the four-month Gulfstream meeting must be expanded beginning in 2006.

"You can't build a new building and be open only three or four months a year," said Stronach. "I have always believed in the free enterprise system. We want to be able to be open year-round for simulcasting.

"I'm not sure how long we'll run a race meet - maybe six months, maybe seven - and I don't mind talking and working together with the people at Calder. I don't want to crush the competition. I want to stimulate the competition, and if done right there should be enough business for everyone. The key is to improve the product and expand the marketplace to bring in new customers."

Jim McAlpine, president and CEO of Magna, said: "By constructing the mall adjacent to the racetrack, basically what we're doing is building a new front door to the track that can bring in an additional 15,000 people."

Stronach said he may consider getting a racing license in Boynton Beach to operate a meet at Palm Meadows.

"First we want to prove we can have great racing here at Gulfstream," said Stronach. "Then we'll look into the possibility of also getting a license to race at Palm Meadows."

Stronach said he is on the verge of signing a new distribution deal for Gulfstream's racing signal. Stronach stirred up controversy last season when he restricted the Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita simulcast signals to Magna's XpressBet and HRTV network.

"We are in negotiations with major networks and very close to signing a deal," Stronach said. "This is a top priority for us."