12/07/2007 1:00AM

Track trying to be more fan friendly

EmailHALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Remember the good old days at Gulfstream Park, when a fan could spend an entire afternoon at the races soaking up the sun, lounging in his beach chair while never having to set foot in the grandstand? Track officials say they are working to bring some of that charm back for the 2008 meet that opens on Jan. 3.

Ever since the old grandstand was torn down following the conclusion of the 2004 season, there have been complaints that the construction of a new casino came at the expense of outdoor seating areas for racegoers.

Among several renovation projects this season, Gulfstream is creating a raised viewing area for fans near the sixteenth pole in the North Park section of the track and adding outdoor box seats along the rear of the grandstand. Last season, the North Park section, which is between the sixteenth pole and the paddock runway, contained a large tent and temporary grandstand seating constructed over asphalt.

"We've tried to listen to our customers and do the best we can to accommodate them in the new facility," said Bill Murphy, who is beginning his second meet as president of Gulfstream Park.

The 2008 meeting will be the fourth since the old grandstand was torn down and the third since the new building was completed in early 2006. Unlike the old grandstand, which had more than 20,000 seats facing directly onto the racetrack and an apron area that could accommodate thousands more, the new plant has been less fan friendly. Excluding two dining areas and luxury suites on the third floor, only 900 seats in the mezzanine actually looked out on the racetrack, a number that will be cut in half to make way for the new box seats.

Murphy said that the addition of the renovated North Park area along with the new boxes will provide seating that looks directly onto the track for more than 3,000 patrons. More than half of those seats will be free of charge. Murphy said that box seats will be sold for the entire meet, not on a daily basis.

Accommodating the public will be more important than ever because the race meet will be conducted while construction of a new shopping mall continues in what had traditionally been the track's main parking area adjacent to the grandstand.

"We've brought in 50,000 cubic yards of material to build up the area in North Park about four feet, which will give our customers sight lines that will be great for both the main and turf tracks," Murphy said. "The area will be beautifully landscaped and will contain a tiki bar, 50 large-screen televisions for simulcast racing, and 18 stations for mutuel tellers. There will be free picnic tables and benches, although we'll also encourage patrons to bring their own lounge chairs if they'd like.

"The new North Park will have a relaxed feel to it that will combine the feeling of the old paddock area at Gulfstream along with a perfect view of the racetrack and tote board."

Murphy said 22 state-of-the-art luxury boxes were being constructed atop the mezzanine level of the grandstand.

"Each box will contain comfortable seating for six along with a telephone and private television sets equipped with account terminals for wagering purposes," Murphy said. "They'll also be Internet-ready as well. Box-seat owners will be able to telephone their food orders directly to the kitchen and have a concierge at their service for any other needs during the course of the day."

Murphy said he has already received several inquiries from interested parties.

"This is a supply and demand issue and if the demand is great enough we are prepared to build additional boxes in the future," Murphy said.

The opening of a second casino with 750 slot machines on the lower level of the grandstand in 2007 brought the track's total number of slot machines to about 1,250, but reduced the number of seats available inside the building on live racing days. Slot revenues have so far not matched expectations, and officials said only 250 of the initial 750 machines would remain in that area, with 200 moving to the second floor and the rest taken out of circulation for the time being.

"We decided to return more space to the horseplayer in the Finish Line Casino, so we have relocated the majority of the slot machines in that room," said Murphy. "That will leave us plenty of space for seating, betting terminals, 60 large-screen televisions to present both our live and simulcast wagering products, as well as a new food court."

One of the notable additions to Gulfstream since the 2007 meet ended in April is Christine Lee's restaurant. A landmark on Miami's South Beach for decades, the new Christine Lee's is on the third floor of the grandstand and has been turning away customers since opening last summer.

"Business at Christine Lee's has exceeded our wildest expectations," Murphy said. "We're quite pleased the restaurant will be open during the races in addition to evenings and will also cater our luxury suites on the third floor."

Murphy said that parking should not be a problem, despite the ongoing mall construction.

"We've paved the area south of the grandstand and have room to offer free parking for 5,000 cars with free shuttle service from all lots right to the front door," Murphy said. "We have also expanded our valet service and will open a second valet lot on the south side of the building to go along with the one currently operating on the north end."