FHBPA’s Kent Stirling–Two South Florida Thoroughbred Horse Tracks Going in Different Directions

By  Kent H. Stirling

Reprinted from www.FHBPA.com

As the economy slowly pulls itself out of the recent recession, we have two race tracks just seven miles apart that appear to be going in different directions. One track has spent a huge amount on advertising horse racing on billboards, magazines, radios, and on every local television station during the course of the last 5 years, and the other track spends little money on horse racing in the media, although they do advertise their Casino. For what it’s worth, the latter track’s casino out performs the Casino at the track that focuses on thoroughbred horse racing.

Since we are horsemen, we will focus our attention on the track that spends heavily advertising horse racing rather than promotions at their Casino. Last year, Gulfstream Park ran the December dates for the first time and crushed the wagering handle numbers of Calder for any of the years when they previously ran the December dates. This year Gulfstream rather impressively outdistanced their own wagering handle numbers from last December on track in both the live product and the out-of-state simulcasts.

Through the middle of January, Gulfstream’s live on track wagering was up 12.6 % and its simulcasting or full card handle was up almost 18.5%. The live numbers were really much better than they appear as 24 fewer races were offered in the first 30 days of this Gulfstream meet, because they ran less races per day than previously. When one adjusts for those 24 missing races, the live on track handle then is up 22 % over the first 30 days of the 2011/2012 meet. These handle number are even more impressive when one realizes that the first 30 days last year included an extra Saturday and Sunday, because a number of four day race weeks were run last December, while this year Gulfstream has run only five day race weeks.

ITW wagering handle, or wagering within the state of Florida, on the live product is down 6 % from last year but when adjusted for number of races it is just about even to last year, or up 0.2 %. ITW Full Card or simulcasting wagering on out-of-state tracks bet on in Florida is down just about 10 % this year. Little advertising is used promoting Gulfstream’s live signal and the accompanying out-of-state simulcasts in the rest of the state, which makes it more apparent how Gulfstream’s local adverting has paid dividends.

Interstate wagering, or ISW, on Gulfstream’s live product is down a half %, but when adjusted for number of races it jumps to up almost 8 %. This then means that the winter’s most popular wagering signal that has emanated from Gulfstream for the last 12 years is up significantly over last year which was up over the previous year (2011).

Gulfstream seems to reinvent itself every year. This year it brought in the Claiming Crown which was on life support after last year’s edition when one race couldn’t even be used because of lack of entries at that host track. Gulfstream made last year’s failed race go and added another Claiming Crown race to the card. The seven races had 78 entries and wagering on track on just those races was a Claiming Crown record of $1,118,235. This had to be way more than double any other Claiming Crown handle. The interstate wagering handle on these one-time Blue Collar horses was $8,159,376 which was probably more than triple any other Claiming Crown’s interstate simulcasting total.

Next year the Claiming Crown will offer a million dollars in purses as the FHBPA Board of Directors has once again voted to increase some of the purses and add one more race. This event now joins the Sunshine Millions, Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth, and Donn Handicap day, as one of Gulfstream’s biggest event days.

Besides hosting the Claiming Crown, Gulfstream Park also hosted the Eclipse awards for the first time, and probably the first time ever that the Eclipse awards were hosted by a track. But aren’t these racing’s most important awards? So why shouldn’t they be hosted every year by a race track? There is only one track with a large, elegant room that could accommodate over 500 people comfortably, and that would be the beautiful “Sport of Kings” room at Gulfstream Park.

I would expect we will be seeing other industry events at Gulfstream, and would not be surprised to see another Breeders’ Cup in the not too distant future.

Since I am often perceived as always praising Gulfstream while not equally praising that nearby Casino with a race track, I feel it only fair to be at least a little critical of Gulfstream.

The new Gulfstream can’t hold one third as many people as its predecessor could, and that brings me to my pet peeve about Gulfstream. Last year, Gulfstream stopped publishing their handle numbers, and I suggested to management that they should again publish those handle numbers, particularly the interstate simulcasting handle numbers which are by far the highest in the country. Gulfstream complied and printed all their handle numbers from on track, within the state and their interstate simulcasting numbers. But then they went even further and started publishing “calculated” attendance numbers.

When you have a race track facility with free admission, two casinos and numerous entrances to the track from the Villages at Gulfstream, how do you know what your track attendance is? Possibly some secret formula based on programs sold, betting “whales” present and number of customers having lunch at Christine Lee’s divided by the number of gray horses on the card?

We have asked that these “calculated” attendance numbers be dropped, but through Donn Handicap day, February 9th they are still being published. According to these attendance numbers per capita wagering on December 2nd and December 23rd was $159. But the Christmas season brought out the heavy hitters as the per capita wager went to $420 on December 28th and a whopping $516 on December 26th. With what seemed like giant crowds on two Saturdays, we learned that track capacity is exactly 9,112, the attendance on both Claiming Crown day with a total wagering handle of $2,086,000 and Donn Handicap day when the total handle was $2,841,000. It seems Gulfstream is doing itself a huge injustice by continuing to publish its “calculated” attendance numbers which seem to be ultra conservative.

One of the local papers began their article on the Grade 1 Donn and co-feature Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap with the following: A huge crowd reminiscent of Florida Derby Day witnessed two memorable races on what was billed as Super Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

I know Gulfstream at this point probably can’t accommodate more than 11,000 or so, but doesn’t a “huge” crowd sound better than total attendance of 9,112?