Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Weekend Getaway 2010

I had worked pretty hard to get ready for the weekend. Lots of paper handicapping since the Gulfstream meet opened on January 3. Reviewed the charts for almost all the races on each card. Tried to see who was hot and how the track was playing. Fat lot of good it did me. I also wasted some time looking at the three SA races in the “Sunshine Millions”. There was no Pick Six equivalent I could find, so I wound up passing them all. I am less interested than ever now in the CA synthetic surfaces. Seems like a permanent split is developing between those horses and the dirt types. Maybe if I get to Woodbine in the spring I will pay more attention.

I had set up (I hoped) an arrangement to get a press credential through Caton Bredar, the “Executive Producer” of GP’s New Media Development office or some such. Had a hard time figuring out who to talk to. GP website is pretty poor in general and very bad about contacts for people. This might be by design, given the financial troubles Magna seems to be in. No follow up people included at the end of the GP press releases even. So I Googled GP press releases and found a guy at the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel named Nick Sortal who seemed to be following things at GP. I sent him a cold email asking who he knew. He gave me Randy Abraham at GP who gave me Caton Bredar.

I figured that everyone at GP used the same email address format and sent Caton an email asking for a credential. She very graciously called me on the phone, but my cell was off and I missed it. I emailed her back using the same pitch that was somewhat successful last summer at Belmont with Ashley Herriman and Dan Silver of NYRA. She got back to me and said to drop by when I was in town. This felt great.

When I arrived at the track on Saturday, I could see that most of the “Village” has been completed. Now the place looks just like any other moderately upscale So. Florida shopping mall. You are much more likely to see The Container Store and Crate and Barrel, than you are to notice the racetrack grandstand. I had bought a ($30!) ticket to sit in the stands, since I did not know if my approach as a journalist was going to work, and I knew from experience that I need a place to park my bones, even if I do a lot of walking around. So I picked up my ticket at Will Call and asked for the Media Office. It is located behind an unmarked door at the back end of the very dark simulcasting theater. A pleasant and easygoing guy named Travis (Stone as it turns out) said that Caton was doing her radio show and asked if he could help. I told him she asked me to drop by so she could hook me up with a credential. He obliged with a limited access pass for the season. I asked him about the press box and he gave me some loose directions. Travis also said that it would be full that day and they would be using an overflow room next door. He said to make myself comfortable.

Turns out, the “press box” at GP is one of the luxury suites on the 3rd floor. You take the elevator up and go through Christine Lee’s restaurant, an Asian/steakhouse place where a couple can get a $52 plate of sushi or a $75 porterhouse. Not with my winnings.

You need to walk through the restaurant and down a long corridor lined with sconces, past dark wood doors with the names of the VIP’s next to them, to get to the box. Inside, the room is small and rectangular, not much exposure directly onto the track. It is also pretty well down the straightaway headed for the first turn, well past the finish line. It does have sliding glass doors leading to an outside balcony. Some other guys were there, but I did not want to risk embarrassing myself by saying anything. I did not stay long, since whatever story I was going to find would be down among the people and the ponies, not up in the air with a bunch of guys doing a job I don’t really understand.

Contrast this with the other two pressboxes I have been in, both in the past year. First was the one at Belmont last July. You take a (union operator attended) elevator up to a cheaply paneled hallway which leads to some very downscale offices where the track media people work. At the end of the hall is the pressbox. Very long exposure to the track, lots of desks along the window, but definitely a place that has seen better days. Later in the season, my old high school acquaintance Rich Fahey took Bill Burke and me into the box at Suffolk Downs. You walk up to the top level of the grandstand, go in a small door, walk down a very dark service corridor, then across a flimsy catwalk over the stands. The pressbox is about as attractive and comfortable as the maintenance office at Cabrini-Green, and was probably cleaned as recently.

So I went downstairs and wandered around. I had done my handicapping and didn’t want to overthink it. The track itself is mostly unchanged from last year. The simulcast theater, the “casino” opposite, the bar in the middle, and the very nice walking ring with seating on all sides. One feature at Gulfstream that might not be found elsewhere (Del Mar?) is a “beach”. As you approach the first turn there is an area to watch the races that is fitted out like a small resort beach. Tiki huts, umbrellas, a bar, small stage with amplifiers, big lounge chairs, and what I can only call beds, complete with privacy drapes. Yes, beds.

Magna has installed a new inner turf track this year. This should allow for more turf races and does represent something of an investment in the plant. Otherwise things feel very familiar. Everything (like all of South Florida) smells like one big Cohiba. The crowd fills in slowly as the afternoon goes on. Lots of retirees, lots of college kids. Not so many obnoxious Yankee fans as I remember. “Product models” in very short dresses and very big hats handing out GP freebies. This is a big race day, so some folks are dressed up. The most frequent look among females under 60 is “I know I look like a stripper, but I’m really not.” The crowd is still pretty thin approaching the fifth race and there is more activity away from the track than on the apron. The stands (for which you have to pay) and Christine Lee’s remain pretty empty all day.

My handicapping stinks and my wagering strategy is worse. A small snowman of torn-up tickets is growing around my ankles. Vince Wilfork of the Patriots shows up in the Winners Circle with Caton, ostensibly to hand out a trophy. I know better – he has been riding my selections. I drift back towards the fancy walking ring and the seats surrounding it. You get a very good view of the horses and jockeys, and get to see some celebrity trainers like Todd Pletcher. I spy an owner’s wife wearing a very stylish jacket designed to look like jockey’s silks. It’s like everyone at the track has Jack Nicholson’s or Spike Lee’s seats at the basketball game, except you could smoke a cigar if you felt like it. Why don’t more people go to the track?

It looks to me like if you can afford a stakes-level racehorse you can also afford some really high quality plastic surgery for your trophy wife.

I review my handicapping for the last few races, the big ones worth hundreds of thousands in purses. As I begin to walk away, a guy asks me who I am to be taking the card so seriously. I tell him I am a freelancer looking for stories and trying to have fun at the same time. I ask to take his picture. He has what would be a handlebar moustache if the bicycle belonged to King Kong. His name is Jim and he is from NH. We wish each other luck and I wander back to the rail.

Now standing at the rail at the finish line is the exact equivalent of courtside seats to the Celtics. The difference (besides that noted above) is that it costs exactly nothing. Free parking and free admission every day at GP. Nine or ten professional sporting events featuring the stars of the sport. Outdoors in the sun. $1 draft beers. Sometimes you are standing right next to the owners of the horses. Imagine watching the game with George Steinbrenner, Mario Lemieux, or Steve Pagliuca. What’s not to love?

The crowd is bigger now that the feature races are being run and it surges like the tide back and forth between the walking ring and the rail, as races are run and new entrants parade around. The schedule seems very tight, maybe to accommodate the SA races. I hit one exacta that does not even pay for the cost of the wagers I make on that race. My ROI for the day requires the use of negative infinity.

Next day is Sunday and I try for the doubleheader. Hialeah and GP. Hialeah has just reopened after being shut down for years. I read that the owner has exercised some small loophole in the law and is running quarterhorses as his ticket to opening a gambling facility at the track. Post times are conflicting, but I am sure I can see something at each.

Now I had never been to Hialeah, even though most people I talk to think it is the only racetrack in Florida. They remember seeing, or seeing photos of, the famous flamingos. The pictures I have seen make the track look pretty beat. Not nearly as beat however as the surrounding neighborhood. If you are a fan of junkyards, West 79th Street in Miami is the place for you. Also a good spot to pick up some souse or curried goat to take home.

The track has a nice palm-lined entry drive and is served by public transportation, Miami’s MetroRail. Once you park (again free parking and free admission) the sense of decay sets in. Not a creepy decay, but the familiar South Florida decay. Miami is a sub-tropical jungle, subject to torrents of rain and occasional direct hits by hurricanes. “We got the old and the mold.” as a guy once told me. It has a comforting “Old Florida” feel. I think I see GP’s future, especially since the future of all racing is dimming rapidly.

As I go through the turnstile (at least they have the sense to count the patrons) I see lots more cowboy hats and lots more families than yesterday at GP. Seems like a nice day out for families and old folks alike. The facility is still mostly shuttered. There is elevated seating and an apron area along the track past the finish line and some very modest concessions on the ground level. The main grandstand is cordoned off. The dining rooms are closed. The press box is very temporary looking. The HIALEAH sign under the electronic toteboard turns out to have been painted on the side of an empty trailer. A friendly lady sees me taking pictures and suggests I go around to the back of the building for better photos of the decay. She could not be more correct. I snap a photo of some very quiet and very far off flamingos before I go.

Out back is the working part of the track – the jockeys’ room, the stables, the walking ring. It also has a small playground, some disused decorative fountains, and the future home of Hialeah gaming, the partially caved in Flamingo Pavilion. The signs say opening in 2010. Don’t hold your breath. I watch the first race (12 seconds long!), just to say I have been to the races at Hialeah, and head up 95 to Hallandale Beach Boulevard.

Now I had been thinking that 79th Street was in a very bad way and it is. When I began to look closer at Hallandale Beach Blvd. I could see that, in its way, things were not much better. Lots of vacant buildings along here too.

I dropped into the media offices and said hi to Travis. Caton was in her office. I thanked her for her hospitality and we chatted a little bit about Suffolk Downs. Turns out her grandfather, Ted Atkinson, used to ride there and she has done some MassCaps for ESPN. Small world. She said I was welcome to go into the paddock/walking ring if I wanted. I had been motioned into the winner’s circle yesterday by one of the security staff. She had seen the credential around my neck and the camera in my hand. I declined both. I did not want to do something stupid and wear out my welcome. Went back to the press suite and pinched myself to make sure I was not dreaming.

Pretty fair weekend. Three racecards at two different tracks, a press credential, some face time, and three dips in the ocean.

1 comment:

  1. Ned,
    Great photos !! But depressing.
    You are a gifted writer. Persevere!!
    Bill B