In an unabashed bit of theft from the Quinella Queen…I’ve got a new crush.
Timing is everything, they say, and after a relentless grey and cold winter, the last three weeks of which I have spent fending off germs of various sorts, I was ready for a little warmth and TLC.
And who, most unexpectedly and just when I needed it most, was there to meet my needs with open arms? Gulfstream Park.
Let me tell you, no one was more surprised than I, especially after all that I’ve been reading about Gulfstream and Stronach and Magna. And I’d been there before: once mid-week in March of 2006, when the main building was only partially finished, and again for the 2007 Florida Derby. I got only a brief first impression in 2006 (barely time to flirt), and while I got to know the place a little better in 2007, I didn’t do enough exploring to really get a sense of it. Just goes to show you that sometimes, you need to dig a little deeper to discover the chemistry.
Now, keep in mind that my tastes have never run to the understated, so over-the-top architecture and tropical-inspired décor and colors are a plus for me, particularly after this winter of steel grays. The main entrance is obscured by the half-built retail elements of Gulfstream, which is a shame, but once inside the track (free admission and parking), visitors will find the place clean, comfortable, spacious, with attention to aesthetics and detail throughout. This guy looks good—but looks alone aren’t generally enough to keep my attention.
Those of us used to the brawny, massive tracks of New York tracks will be surprised by the more manageable, less intimidating Gulfstream. Without acres of grandstand and clubhouse, there is relatively little seating available. That said, on the two days that I was there, both of which were comfortable and dry, the outdoor seating offered more than enough accommodation for visitors, and there was also a good crowd in Ten Palms, the restaurant on the second floor.
Tables are scattered along the apron, and up beyond the horse path between the paddock and the track is an outdoor bar area, with betting machines and tellers in nearby. This area offers the only bit of shade for those who haven’t purchased seats, and on the days that I was there, the stools around the well-stocked bar were full.
If you’re looking for a more upscale experience, you can purchase seats; a table in the dining room; or a box, all of which are comfortable and offer a great view of the track. You can wager with a card at the terminals in the seating area; walk inside to bet with a teller; or place your bet with one of the several people walking around with hand-held pari-mutuel machines. (I did this a few times, and was utterly stymied by tipping protocol. Do I tip each time I place a bet? Do I tip more when my bet is bigger? Do I tip only when I win?)
(Note: this photo was taken a couple of hours before post time–hence the emptiness.)
Races were off the turf on Thursday, so fields were reduced and odds were mostly low, but Allen Jerkens had three horses entered, and the seventh race, an allowance, featured one of those three, Le Grand Cru, who was both the morning line and post-time favorite, and the return of The Roundhouse, a Pletcher-trained/Tabor-Magnier owned colt who made a splash at Saratoga in 2007.
The Chief ended the day with a fourth, a second, and a win. The win came from Right of Way, a three-year-old who had raced six times on the dirt and once on the turf without notching a win; his best finishes had come on the turf (third) and a muddy track (second). Entering him again on the turf last Thursday, the Chief kept him in when the race was moved to the dirt (track condition: sloppy), and he went off as the second favorite, at less than 2 – 1.
Right of Way is bred and owned by Jerkens’s wife Elisabeth, and quite a crowd turned out for his race. He led the whole way, increasing the margin with each call, and as Right of Way and Shannon Uske drew away in the stretch, supporters whooped and hollered…except for the Chief, who quietly expressed his satisfaction with a very big grin as he made his way to the winner’s circle.
Hopes were high for The Grand Cru in the next race, but I confess to more than a little interest in The Roundhouse; he was a two-year-old the summer of Rags to Riches’ Belmont, when it seemed like those blue and orange silks were everywhere, and there was a buzz about him at Saratoga, after he placed in both the Sanford (behind Ready’s Image and Tale of Ekati) and the Saratoga Special (behind Kodiak Kowboy). He seemed like one of those who would go on the Derby trail and of whom we’d see a lot…and then he was gone. After Saratoga, he raced once at Keeneland, finishing sixth, and wasn’t seen again for more than a year, when he re-appeared last month at Gulfstream, finishing third (Formidable, another of Jerkens’s horses, won that one).
Le Grand Cru went right to the lead under Javier Castellano, while The Roundhouse bided his time off the screen for most of the race. The fractions were fast and though Le Grand Cru certainly seems talented, he had little left in deep stretch when The Roundhouse easily passed him and drew off to win by two and a quarter.
Joining me on several of these Florida excursions was fellow blogger Gathering the Wind, who was as willing as I to indulge in the charms that Gulfstream offered. We had a beer at the tiki bar, because I think that the opportunity to drink under a palm tree at the racetrack should never be passed up. Gulfstream is a place committed to offering sensual, maybe even sybaritic, pleasures; we could barely walk a few steps without encountering yet another place to buy something to eat or to drink.
On the ground floor, Silks offers serious horseplayers an enormous room with a bank of televisions and plenty of seating; walking outside and past yet another bar, one might (I didn’t) enter the casino. Those of us there for the racing could remain blissfully ignorant of the slot machines; those there for the slots must, however, go past the walking ring, which is as it should be.
I like the idea, as well as the reality, of Gulfstream; contemplating the half-completed retail extravaganza, I thought of the SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre) in Toronto: a hotel/entertainment/shopping complex built around a baseball field. It became a destination even for people who don’t like sports, but I imagine that more than a few visitors paid attention to baseball, simply because it was there. It’s not hard to think that when—if?—the Gulfstream project is ever finished, the same might happen.
It was clear to me, during my two days at Gulfstream, that racing comes first. Despite the newness of the physical plant, Gulfstream reminds folks of its history with plaques dedicated to various storied horses around the walking rin, and I confess that I liked these jockey likenesses displayed near the main entrance. I do wonder what it might be like on a stifling hot or a wet day—so much of the seating is outside that I imagine that it could get uncomfortable. But over two days, I saw folks having a good time; I experienced excellent customer service at every turn; and I saw a track that seems dedicated to providing an easy, positive experience for its customers.
So while my heart belongs forever and irrevocably to New York tracks, themselves something of a seasonal affair (and really, who could argue with a summer Saratoga fling?), I’m not sure that an occasional winter frolic, just for a little variety, is such a bad thing. After all, Aqueduct, you’re the one I’m coming home to…