04/17/2007 11:00PM

Slots haven't solved all Gulf's troubles


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Slot machines have been operating at Gulfstream Park for the first time during the 2007 meeting, and while overnight purses have never been better the new casino was certainly not the instant panacea the local racing industry had expected.

Through April 1, average daily ontrack handle was even with last year. Handle was up slightly on imported signals and down approximately 10 percent on the Gulfstream simulcast signal. The meet closes Sunday.

Because of the early slot projections, overnight purses were set 17 percent higher than last year and are averaging $247,000 per day, compared with $188,000 in 2006.

The slots opened to a packed house last November, but by the time the meet opened on Jan. 3 business had leveled out well below original predictions. The 2006 legislation that allowed all parimutuel facilities in Broward County to operate slots included a clause that barred track operators from cashing checks or operating ATM machines at the facility. That has had an unexpected impact on handle, said Bill Murphy, the president of Gulfstream Park.

"I don't think anyone understood the impact not having ATMs or being able to cash checks would have on our racing handle," said Murphy, who was given the additional responsibility of overseeing the casinos by his bosses at Magna Entertainment Corp. "For example, we had one patron fly in from Kentucky with an $80,000 check he wanted to cash to play the races. And we were unable to accommodate him. Here we are in a state that relies on tourism and a guy cannot even cash a traveler's check at the track."

Murphy cited figures that prove his point. More than $6 million had been withdrawn from ATM machines and an additional $16 million in checks were cashed for patrons, horsemen, and backstretch help at Gulfstream through April 1 of the 2006 meet. According to Murphy, that money can generally be expected to be churned back through the windows as much as three to six times over the course of a day.

"The declines in handle caused by this one particular situation are obvious when you review the numbers from last year's meet and this year," said Murphy. "Under normal circumstances, the handle builds on a race-to-race basis as you approach your feature race towards the end of the card. But during the current meet those figures declined on a daily basis."

Gulfstream also lost business early in the meet when the New York City Off-Track Betting sites did not take the track's signal for 10 days because of a simulcast fee dispute. The reopening of Fair Grounds, which did not run last year because of Hurricane Katrina, also affected handle.

"Considering the lack of ATMs and check cashing, the issues we had early in the meet with New York City OTB, and the competition from the Fair Grounds, which we did not have in 2006, I thought overall our business was remarkable," said Murphy. "And I'm optimistic that legislation addressing the ATM and check cashing issues will be revised before the opening of the 2008 meet."

Murphy said the racing at the meet was strong.

"The best marketing tool in any business is a great product and the racing product certainly marketed itself this season," said Murphy. "All the stars were here, from Invasor to Scat Daddy, although I think there are certain areas we can address to make our racing even better. I want to go out and recruit outfits to come here instead of accepting whoever chooses to come our way. I'd also like to realign our racing product in general and stakes program in particular. For instance, I'm not big on the super Saturday cards. I'd prefer spreading our stakes out better and letting major stakes such as the Donn and Pan American handicaps stand on their own merits."

Murphy said Gulfstream plans to stick to the same schedule in 2008 but could explore expanding its dates beyond that.

"We're committed to our dates in 2008, but at some point we'd like to run more days and I can say for certain that our chairman, Frank Stronach, is committed to live racing at Gulfstream," said Murphy. "Although, whatever we decide to do we'll sit down with our neighbors at Calder and discuss the situation first."

Murphy said he also is cognizant of changes that need to be made to the facility.

"We've listened to our fans and I'm already looking into studying the configuration of the plant for ways to offer more seating and better viewing of our races," said Murphy. "We also have an unprecedented relationship with our horsemen and we hear their concerns on a weekly basis throughout the meet. One of their biggest concerns is our inability to run races at a mile and one-sixteenth, and we're planning to explore possible options to rectify that situation by the time racing returns here in January."