We put the new, slots-laden Philadelphia Park under the microscope earlier this month. Of considerable long-term benefit to horsemen, the situation in suburban Philadelphia is not nearly so attractive to habitual local horseplayers - at least not until the promised new casino structure is completed next door, taking in the bulk of the clanging machines and their addicted customers.
We recently got a good, sustained look at Magna Corporation's new-deal Gulfstream Park, now in its second year of racing operation. It's not a finished product just yet, but current visitors will quickly get the idea of where it's at, and where it's going.
Compare Philly . . . and Gulfstream? If it were a fight, they'd stop it:
(1) Larger dirt and grass ovals in Miami - kinder to horses, with more formful results. (2) Mo' better horses in South Florida, of course, at this point in time . . . but situated in the East's prime winter playground, you'd expect anything less? Florida fans will be blessed with what they see of top-rung competitors, but may be disappointed at the quality of the events making up the bulk of the racing programs. (3) Jockey colony? No contest. Santa Anita can engage in debate about the quality atop the jock's standings in Los Angeles vis a vis Hallendale, but there's no debate regarding which room is deeper in sheer talent . . . and Anita loses. (4) A typical forty-plus-degree temperature swing, once you reach the sunny Promised Land. (5) The scenery. (6) Post-racing dining and entertainment options . . . if we may grossly simplify, Joe's Stone Crab vs. Outback. Little in downtown Philly can hold a candle to what's available in the Miami/Lauderdale area in January and February.
The veteran, low-roller racing fan lost the war at Gulfstream when Frank Stronach knocked down the long-standing, expansive, patron-friendly, decades-old structure in favor of the current layout, at a cost in the $200 million range. The previous experience is gone forever. There's considerable good to be said about specific aspects of the new track, especially the vastly-improved and safer racing surfaces, and the accommodations for the highest of the rollers, and the wellest of the heeled . . . but the average patron will be absorbing a considerable beating in comfort levels, especially on the biggest days.
Hey, at least general parking admission are free. But if you walk in around crunch time . . . a half-hour or so prior to the first heat, the lines for Daily Racing Forms and associated publications are forbidding. Yes, you should have done your homework, beforehand . . . in you go . . .
The paddock's quite attractive, not to mention enlarged. You get an especially-good view of the horses being saddled from the second-floor promenade, which we'll visit, in a moment . . .
Work your way around the north side of the paddock, and you'll encounter the breezeway leading to the front apron, facing the racecourse. An expansive bar is the social center of the breezeway. On your left (as you face the track) is Silks, the primary main-floor simulcast area, featuring rows of carrels, a measure of standing room (not enough!), dozens of flat-screen TVs depicting the action at various racing outposts, and several fast-food (chicken, pizza, fish) stands . . . not bad, and not unreasonable. You can maneuver, but you wish it were bigger, and if you need to make a bet in the late moments, you're better off outside, on the track apron, with the experienced clerks stationed there - or at one of the self-service machines. There are scattered tables and chairs on the apron, and there is limited first floor reserved-seat grandstand seating on the wire, but not enough - and those who experienced better will never, ever stop kvetching about it as long as they live. But what is, is.
The room on the right on the main level had a similar flavor last season, but is currently being renovated with the view of placing the promised additional slot machines onto the premises.
Second floor? The Ten Palms buffet . . . not cheap, but all things being equal (selection, quality, a seat for the day), perhaps your best option, if food is a priority, you're seeking something more substantial than a light meal or snack and you don't require hand-and-foot service.
The main feature of the second floor is The Casino - one without table games. Rows and rows and rows of slot machines . . . in a dark, crowded, air-conditioned environment. In terms of electronic reel slots, you can name your own poison, up to $20 machines with top prizes of $120,000. There are only two banks of video-poker machines, and good luck finding a seat at one of 'em, even if most only offer 7/5 (full house/flush) pay tables, excepting some 9/6 on the double-bonus varieties. The room contains close to half of the total number of machines Gulfstream eventually expects to offer patrons.
The slot room at Gulfstream is in competition with the facilities available at the Hollywood dog track, a couple of miles north on U.S. 1. But there seems to be more than enough business for all involved. First made available to the public for play on November 15, Gulfstream's machines have already made a marked difference in the track's purse structure, and more enrichment is to be expected. The track's overnight purse offerings are now on a par with those of New York's winter session at Aqueduct, and should projections hold, Gulfstream horsemen will be racing for markedly-higher pots in 2008 and beyond. Good news, for management as well as owners and trainers, in a business where competition for desirable racing-fit stock is fierce . . . and to be remembered, when the slot players may be making things a tad more crowded than you might like.
Before we leave the second level, will again note the circular promenade, overlooking the paddock. Good viewing -- and its attractiveness reminded of the congenial people-gathering areas inherent in the old structure - especially the walkway leading from the paddock to the front apron. But, alas, on weekends, this area gets extremely crowded, slowing navigation times considerably. The cramped quarters make many pine for the Good Old Days.
The primary attraction on the third floor is the high-end restaurant, Chase. Finally, an attractive layout - and some breathing room! The waitstaff needs more polish, but those on hand and in charge bend over backwards to please, so give it time . . . meanwhile, given that you're seated in a pleasant environment with many flat-screen TVs and mutuel clerks at hand, the food and drink are fairly-priced, not to mention markedly-improved over 2006's maiden voyage. The sightlines for those striving to attain close-up views of live sport are no bargain, but on balance a reasonable alternative for the high-end consumer.
For the high, HIGH-end consumer, there are the suites on the third level, available for rental on a daily basis. Pleasantly-appointed, overlooking the track, they're available for fees in the low FOUR-figure range . . . and food and drink are extra, thanks. Whatever floats your boat . . .
Following this weekend's Sunshine Millions promotion, matching the best of the Florida and California-breds, the Miami season will truly kick into high gear Super Bowl week, when they run the Donn Handicap on the eve of Super Bowl XLI. The Donn is expected to attract Horse of the Year Invasor. This will be the first to-the-wall test of the downsized facility's ability to comfortably accommodate all who'd like to optimally enjoy Gulfstream's multiple points of charm. Kudos to Stronach for constructing an upgraded main course and turf course any major racing center would be delighted to call their own. Now we have to see if the overall layout can generate the kind of revenue required to keep shareholders content. As usual, the consumers will have the final say, and it will be most interesting to monitor their comments and reactions as the process unwinds.