04/18/2002 11:00PM

Training center just the start

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The 2002 Gulfstream Park racing season ends Wednesday, but for the track's owner, Frank Stronach's Magna Entertainment, the job of renovating the facility and preparing for the 2003 meet and beyond has just begun.

Magna is poised to begin an ambitious three-year, three-phase plan for Gulfstream Park, which includes the construction of a new simulcast center, concert area, and state-of-the-art clubhouse as well as the demolition of the track's grandstand.

But the top priority in the upcoming off season is construction of the Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach, which will house 1,900 horses and have three training tracks. The training center will cost $20 million, said Scott Savin, Gulfstream president and general manager, who declined to give a figure for the cost of the entire renovation.

Building the training center became urgent when Hialeah Park last winter closed its barn area, which last year housed nearly 1,000 horses. With fewer horses to draw from, Gulfstream Park's average field size declined and some patrons and members of the media said the track offered lower quality racing this year. Business was off 10 percent this year, Savin said, which no doubt can at least partly be attributed to the smaller fields.

"Getting Boynton Beach up and running in time for the 2003 meet is unquestionably our number one priority over the next six months," Savin said. "Restoring the size of our fields next season to where they were in 2001, which in turn would lead to bigger handles and higher purses, is our primary goal, and to do that we desperately need the extra stalls at Boynton Beach. Right now the land has been cleared and we are on schedule to open the facility with 600 stalls and a 1 1/8-mile dirt track in November."

Average field size declined from 8.9 horses in 2001 to 8.2 horses this meet, Savin said.

"While that doesn't sound like much, it's a lot," Savin said. "Especially when two of your first three races regularly averaged six-horse fields. It's understandable the patrons both ontrack and at simulcast outlets aren't going to be happy with that. As for the quality issue, I don't buy that as much. Just look who won the Blue Grass and Wood, Harlan's Holiday and Buddha, both of whom raced here this winter. And the Gulfstream Park Handicap featured four Grade 1 winners. The Santa Anita Handicap had none. Based on what's available out there, I don't think the quality was down as much as some people thought."

Phase one of Magna's renovation project also includes the demolition of the north section of the grandstand, which will be replaced by a simulcast facility Savin calls a "sports palace," and the construction of a concert stage and adjacent picnic area in the south parking lot.

"Work is scheduled to begin in May," Savin said. "The construction of the sports palace will begin during the summer and is scheduled for completion sometime prior to the 2004 meet."

The simulcast facility will open as soon as it is ready, regardless of whether there is live racing at the time, Savin said.

Savin compared the simulcast center to a Las Vegas sports book. Part of the simulcast center could be used for VLT and slot machines if permitting legislation is passed, Savin said.

"We're not opposed to VLTs and slots," Savin said, "although we are only in favor of such a proposal without deregulation, meaning the freedom to send our racing signal to whomever we want within the state, or even building our own instate simulcast facilities in areas that give up horse race simulcasts in lieu of VLTs. Obviously, raising purses is a major priority here, although we feel there are other means to raise them sooner and more effectively than VLTs, such as through phone wagering or by lifting the 7 p.m. curfew to allow twilight racing."

The concert area, which will include 1,000 outdoor bleachers with a trackside view and a separate entrance to the racetrack, is scheduled for completion in time for the 2003 meet.

Phase two of the plan, to begin at the conclusion of the 2003 season, includes knocking down the remainder of the grandstand to make room for a turf club, which will replace the existing clubhouse. The area will include an outside dining facility similar to the one at Santa Anita, which also is owned by Magna.

Phase three, which starts after the 2004 meet, consists of demolishing the old clubhouse and increasing the size of the main track and turf course. The turf course will be surrounded by a 1 1/8-mile main track. To accomplish this, many of the existing barns running parallel to the backstretch will be razed, which would lower ontrack stall capacity from 1,300 to 800.

The renovation project was scheduled to begin a year ago, Savin said, but "permit issues" delayed construction of the training center.

Savin said that when the renovation project is complete, Gulfstream will have everything it needs to maintain its traditional position as a premier winter track.

"I know the fans, horsemen, and media were disappointed in the racing at Gulfstream Park this year, and I share their frustrations," said Savin. "But I view this as a one-year situation. People still want to be here in the winter. We have the weather, the turf course, and this is a great place to develop 3-year-olds. The results of the Blue Grass and Wood bear that out. And we're not leaving town. Magna is committed to making a substantial investment in the future of Gulfstream Park and the future of Florida racing, and the results of that commitment will start to become evident beginning next season."