Industry Heading South Gulfstream Park Flourishing, But At Expense Of Other Tracks

Joe Cardello is a full-time horseplayer and, like most of his brethren, he eagerly awaited the Gulfstream Park season, which opened Wednesday. To prepare for it, he spent the past few weeks watching and making notes on the races at Calder, familiarizing himself with the resident Florida horses. He closely followed the races at Aqueduct, too, so he will know the New York horses who ship south.

“You have to do this work,” Cardello said, “because Gulfstream is the main battleground of the racing season. It’s the one track where you have big fields and you can get big payoffs. It’s the best place in America to bet.”

Of course, horseplayers have been migrating south for decades to enjoy the high-quality racing, the warm weather and the pleasant ambience of the Florida tracks. But this is a new era for the sport, as typified by Cardello. He won’t see a palm tree all winter. He will be playing the Gulfstream races at Laurel Park and he will be so preoccupied by the Florida simulcasts that he will virtually ignore the live racing.

So many other horseplayers are doing the same - in Maryland, New York, Kentucky, Canada and other major racing centers - that Gulfstream’s business has grown phenomenally. Wagering on its races last winter averaged $7.4 million a day - of which $5.5 million was bet away from the track. This year the figures will be higher, with many new sites added to the simulcasting network. More than 600 outlets in 30 states are taking bets on Gulfstream.

(Greyhound Park at Post Falls carries Gulfstream races Wednesday through Monday beginning at 10 a.m.)

Gulfstream’s success reflects positive and negative developments in the American racing industry. The positive news, of course, is that the horse-racing industry finally has begun to employ simulcasting so effectively and extensively; horseplayers in almost every part of the country now get to enjoy major-league racing.

But the bad news is that Gulfstream’s popularity stems partly from the weakness of the racing product everywhere else. The shortage of horses and the overall decline in the quality of American racing is most evident during the winter months.

New York and Maryland offer such mediocre fare that track managements in both states have pleaded for the permission to shut down live racing in the winter. While horsemen have insisted the show must go on, horseplayers have little enthusiasm for cheap races and small fields, and thus have turned their attention to the simulcasts. Even handicappers who have spent years learning all the nuances of Maryland racing have given up on Laurel in favor of Gulfstream. Last winter, Marylanders bet an average of $460,094 per day on the Gulfstream races.

Playing the horses at Gulfstream is more engaging and potentially more profitable than anyplace else in America. The track lures top trainers from all parts of the country - Shug McGaughey and Scotty Schulhofer from New York, Barclay Tagg from Maryland, Jimmy Croll from New Jersey, Roger Attfield from Canada, Frank Brothers from Illinois - and it is a challenge to assess the merits of such farflung horses.

Most of the races at Gulfstream are highly competitive, and most attract full fields of 12, meaning some entrants with good form will go off at long prices. Handicappers regularly will find horses they love at odds of 10 to 1, 20 to 1 or more - a rare occurrence anywhere else. With exactas and trifectas on every race, plus an array of other exotic wagers, Gulfstream offers juicier payoffs than any track in the country.

Gulfstream made one change this winter that should make the game even more attractive for bettors. It lowered the takeout - the percentage it takes from each wager. The other south Florida tracks, Calder and Hialeah, bleed their customers with some of the highest takeout rates in the nation, and if Gulfstream followed their example it would negate most of its other virtues.

But Gulfstream president Doug Donn said, “The more I’ve looked at this issue, the more I’m convinced that our prices are too high. I’m a born-again takeout-reduction believer.” Donn hired a Kentucky-based expert, Richard Thalheimer, to analyze the track’s takeout, and heeded Thalheimer’s recommendation to lower the takeout on most wagers - including a drop in the pick-three take from 25 to 20 percent.

Donn believes this change will spur business this season, and he has reason to envision significant growth for Gulfstream. The track’s success keeps begetting further success.

As betting pools grow, more gamblers across the country will find the opportunities here more attractive and will wager more money. As betting increases, purses will grow and lure more top stables here. The boom here represents a fundamental change in thoroughbred racing from a regional to a national sport. Gulfstream Park has become America’s track.

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