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Monday, July 31
Gulfstream Park version 2.0

Magna Chariman Frank Stronach has big plans for Gulfstream Park and the Thoroughbred industry in Florida.

Frank Stronach
Frank Stronach has big plans for Gulfstream Park.
As you walk into Gulfstream Park for the 2002 meet that begins this month, take a good look around. Make sure to pay careful attention to the graceful walking ring, the stately grandstand and wide-open grassy areas that are the hallmark of winter racing in Florida. Look closely at these things because, chances are, you'll never see them again.

With parent company Magna Entertainment Corporation planning a multi-million dollar refurbishment of the track that traces its life to the dreams of chairman Frank Stronach, one can almost hear the hum of buzz saws and thud of the demolition ball. Gulfstream as we've come to know it is history.

But that isn't entirely a bad thing.

"We want people to walk in and think that this place was built just for them," said President Scott Savin. "This will represent the vision of Mr. Stronach, who sees racing as part of a larger entertainment theme. Our main goal remains to provide the customer with what he or she wants, and we're going forward with that in mind."

To that end, the first phase of the project -- slated to begin almost as soon as the final patron departs at the meet's end on April 21 -- is a 140,000 square foot, three-level sports palace designed to appeal to both horse racing enthusiasts and fans of other sports that have yet to catch the racing bug.

The top level will be exclusively for simulcasting, but with technology and amenities more closely resembling a Las Vegas racing book than the Bronx OTB parlor that seems to be the model for most simulcasting rooms. While the refinements make it far plusher, this level will ostensibly be replacing the approximately two-thirds of the existing grandstand that will be lost with the expansion. It is the second level of the sports palace though where Stronach and Magna rest their hopes.

Recognizing that racing has done a poor job of converting any volume of sports fans into race fans, the second level is slated to become a multi-entertainment center. Plans call for a 360-degree panorama of huge panel televisions broadcasting every conceivable sporting event as well as racing, hoping that the fan who visit to watch an NFL game may also find it worth their while to hang around for the late daily double.

"If you're a Formula One fan, this is where you'll want to be when Formula One is on," Savin said. "The idea is to seek people with different interests and get them to enjoy the atmosphere."

With seating for up to 3,000, it will be an atmosphere complete with multiple bars, a variety of food service options and a center stage on which boxing matches and concerts can be held.

"It will be the prototype for what we hope to do at tracks throughout the country," Savin continued.

"This will be like nothing the industry has seen before," says Steve McCasey, Magna's chief architect and the man responsible for transforming Stronach's dreams into bricks and mortar. "Certainly there have been mixed use facilities before," he adds, mentioning Disney World as one such example. "But it's a major leap for a racetrack."

Of course, Magna has accounted for the possibility that someone may actually wish to see a Thoroughbred in the flesh as well, planning a view of the racetrack on the north end of the theater. Savin, though, does not expect this glistening new Taj Mahal to be ready until the 2004 season, meaning that "Pardon Our Dust" signs will be in evidence during the 2003 meet. That is in large part because of delays in zoning approval for Palm Meadows, Magna's training track in Boynton Beach, some 55 miles north of Gulfstream.

With the sweeping changes to cause elimination of more than a third of the track's 1,300 existing stalls, Gulfstream desperately needs the off-site facility for horses. This has become further exacerbated with the closure of Hialeah Park's backstretch this winter, resulting in a loss of 1,600 stalls and causing a space crunch even while Gulfstream remains intact.

"The training track dominates the process," Savin concedes.

Of course, in keeping with Stronach's vision, Palm Meadows will be unlike any training facility yet constructed. "The most technologically advanced center of its kind," according to the man responsible for its construction, Gulfstream's Doug Donn.

The initial phase, targeted for completion by November 2002, in time for the influx of northern horses, will cost about $20 million and will consist of up to 800 stalls and three tracks; a 1 1/8-mile main track, a one-mile grass oval and a seven-furlong inner dirt.

Though construction will continue even during the 2002 training season, Donn indicated that there would be nothing ongoing that would render the facility not fit for use. Ultimately, by the time Palm Meadows is fully complete by late 2004, Magna will have spent between $60 - $90 million and constructed up to 1,900 stalls.

"How many we build will depend on the demand," Donn said.

And in a compromise with community residents who were concerned about odors and pollution, Palm Meadows will contain an on-site waste treatment composting plant that will both eliminate the need to truck manure and other refuse away and also keep phosphorus, a major pollutant to the nearby Everglades, from seeping into waterways.

"I think this will be a great boost to the Florida Thoroughbred industry," praised Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners‚ Association President Harold Plumley. "It is going to be a state-of-the-art facility and anytime someone realistically invests in our industry it's a help to all of us."

"We're absolutely looking forward to this because this will alleviate a stall shortage from ever happening again in South Florida," agreed Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and a former trainer. "This is going to be first-class, and a world class training facility to train horses on."

With Palm Meadows operational in late 2002, Gulfstream can bring out the heavy machinery immediately upon the conclusion of its 2003 meet. Besides the sports palace and diminished grandstand, Savin said that the combined total of seats, though dramtically altered, would be virtually identical to the track's current capacity. An outdoor amphitheater and concert center are also in the plans, and Savin anticipates some park area.

"We‚re not going to abandon the outdoor appeal of South Florida," he promises.

And then there is the racetrack itself. While blueprints have been devised and torn up more than once, "Mr. Stronach has traveled the world looking at this for a couple of years but he still hasn't found what he likes yet," said Savin.

The current plans are for a main track expanded from its present one mile to 1 1/8 miles, with an exceptionally wide one-mile grass course inside it. The extra width of the turf course not only addresses the frequently raised concerns of sod durability, but "with portable rails moving in and out we'll always be running over fresh course," Savin explained, and it also fits with Gulfstream's plans to try to attract more European runners.

The elongation of the main track will also give the racing office additional opportunities. A three-furlong chute, a la Hialeah, will enable Gulfstream to conduct early-season 2-year-old races, while the president foresees a backstretch chute that will allow for one-turn mile races.

The project remains, while not secretly guarded, very much a work in process. Stronach and McCasey, of Toronto's McCasey Group, have spent hours pouring over models and, in McCasey's words, "moving pieces around like blocks" to come up with the perfect schematic.

Stronach has planned a major unveiling of the project this month.

With such a palatial creation at their disposal, Gulfstream would be disinclined to allow its vision to remain dormant during the nearly two-thirds of the year that the track does not conduct live racing. While current Florida legislation ostensibly would permit expansion of a racing calendar beyond the existing meet, it is more likely that the track will instead look to remain open for simulcasting.

"We're hoping to work out an agreement with the track conducting live racing to stay open year-round," said Savin, speaking of state law that would allow the parties to agree to such an arrangement without new legislation. "I'm optimistic that both parties would like to better utilize their facilities."

While no name is mentioned, Savin clearly alludes to high-level discussions between officials from Magna and Churchill Downs, Inc., parent company of nearby Calder Race Course, with the obvious presumption that Hialeah will conduct no live racing in the future.

And that, more than anything else, represents the best contrast between the past and future. Hialeah, its expansive open-air grandstand and colorful flamingos beckoning patrons to enjoy the mild South Florida winters, could not compete in a marketplace that is driven by the dynamics of video screens, sports bars and simulcasting. It is a marketplace that Magna expects to conquer.

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