01/11/2002 12:00AM

Time for Gulfstream to face reality

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - America's horseplayers eagerly anticipate the racing season at Florida's Gulfstream Park because its large fields, wide-open races and frequent big payoffs are such a contrast to the fare at most tracks. But since Gulfstream opened Jan. 3, its fans have been disappointed by the product, and their disappointment turned to dismay and alarm Monday.

The Gulfstream racing department had to struggle to assemble the horses for a pitiful card that included five different six-horse fields when entries were published. Late scratches produced four fields of five and an average of 6.1 runners a race. It may have been the worst program ever run in the prime time of the Florida racing season.

Before the 2002 season began, everybody knew that Gulfstream faced two problems. Since Hialeah Park ceased to operate last year, its stable area was closed, and 1,000 fewer stalls were available in south Florida for horses that might run at Gulfstream.

In addition, the purses at Gulfstream are no longer a magnet for top stables from the North and Midwest. Aqueduct and Santa Anita offer bigger pots, and the Fair Grounds in New Orleans is almost on a par with Gulfstream now. As a result, some high-profile trainers went elsewhere this winter. Todd Pletcher took his top horses to the Fair Grounds this winter; Wayne Lukas has his main division in California.

Nevertheless, south Florida still has a Thoroughbred population that most tracks would envy. The stable areas are full at Gulfstream and Calder Race Course, as well as the private Payson Park training center, and these horses should ensure a good winter product. So what's the explanation for so many dismal five- and six-horse fields?

Scott Savin, Gulfstream's president, blames the current woes on the Calder meeting that preceded the start of the Gulfstream season. "The problem is that during the last 17 days of the Calder meeting they ran an average of 11.4 races a day," Savin said. "We normally get 45 to 55 percent of our horses from Calder, but this week we've had dramatically less. Until the Calder horses recycle, we're going to have days that look like Monday."

Calder's philosophy is to run as many races as possible, no matter how bad they are; its 12-race cards were filled with unattractive races and did burn out the local horse population. The lesson to be drawn from Calder's experience is one that every racetrack manager ought to know already. If a track runs too many races, the quality of its product suffers.

Savin certainly understands this. One of the most conspicuous features in his office is a large chart showing the relationship of betting at Gulfstream to the size of the field, and it makes very clear that customers dislike and shun five- and six-horse fields.

Yet Gulfstream has apparently heeded no lessons from Calder or from Savin's big chart.

Though it wouldn't have as many horses as usual, Gulfstream began this season with a philosophy very much like Calder's: Let's run as many races as we can. The track set a schedule that included 12 races each Saturday, 11 on Sunday - a total of 62 per week on its six-day-a-week schedule. (By contrast, the Fair Grounds typically runs 50 a week, Aqueduct 45, Santa Anita 42.) It's disingenuous for Savin to blame Calder for Gulfstream's problems when his own track is doing the same thing and overtaxing the horse population, too.

If Gulfstream operated with a more restrained schedule - nine races a day during the week, 10 on weekends - it would still be running more races per week than any track on the continent. But it still should be able to put on good-sized fields. Because it depends so heavily this year on Calder-based horses, Gulfstream could card occasional races for the bottom-level horses that populate Calder, such as the $12,500 maiden claimers. Races for these runners would produce 12-horse fields and take pressure off the racing secretary as he tries to fill the higher-class events.

Making a few changes to accommodate reality shouldn't be a daunting task. When the quality of racing declined noticeably in Maryland, Laurel Park cut back its schedule this fall, either operating four days a week or running eight-race weekday cards, and it generated large fields that stimulated its business dramatically. But Gulfstream may be a victim of its corporate culture.

Magna Entertainment, which owns Gulfstream, Santa Anita, and other tracks, has a big bureaucracy perched above its local track executives. Frank Stronach, the boss, has a reputation for firing managers at the drop of a hat. So there's surely a disincentive for Gulfstream's executives to say, in essence: "We've got a problem. We made a mistake thinking we can run 62 races a week. We've got to retrench."

Instead, they keep insisting that there is no problem. The track's fans, worried that this usually wonderful race meeting has been spoiled, will find it hard to accept these assurances.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post