Gulfstream Park making real strides

The Gulfstream Park season begins Saturday, a month earlier than usual, and the seventh race will be run at 1 1/16 miles. The early start might attract the most media attention, and the Spectacular Bid Stakes stir the most curiosity, but it's the distance of the seventh race that's most auspicious. The distance isn't a gimmick or a gimcrack to attract a younger audience, nor does it have anything to do with camel races. The distance represents a restoration of values.

Suddenly, it seems, Gulfstream Park has remembered what its season is all about: quality racing and, more than anything, the development of young horses into classic prospects. That mile and a sixteenth suggests that Gulfstream, unlike most racetracks, understands itself and the product it's selling.

Way too often we have people running racetracks who don't understand what it takes to get a horse ready for a race and who have no appreciation of it.

-- Trainer Todd Pletcher

And it's no coincidence, I think, that the new track president is Tim Ritvo, who describes himself as a "racing guy" and who worked for many years as a trainer. Most racetracks these days -- you've probably noticed -- aren't run by racing guys, but by accountants, lawyers and impresarios, along with a coterie of advisers and executives whose skill set is comprised largely of knowing how to flip the switch that turns on the slot machines.

"Way too often," said Todd Pletcher, who has won eight consecutive training titles at Gulfstream, "we have people running racetracks who don't understand what it takes to get a horse ready for a race and who have no appreciation of it."

That might explain what happened back in 2004, when Gulfstream expanded its dirt track from a mile to 1 1/8 miles. But the emperor's new oval wouldn't accommodate 1 1/16-mile races, which would have started with an immediate turn. And so Gulfstream, in effect, banished the distance to the turf. Discontinuing 1 1/16-mile races on the main track was, as it turned out, a move of transcendent foolishness because it eliminated for young horses on the road to the Triple Crown a stepping-stone distance.

In 2005, the Fountain of Youth Stakes, traditionally run at 1 1/16 miles as a prep for the Florida Derby, was run at 1 1/8 miles, which can be demanding for any horse and especially a lightly raced youngster that never has raced around two turns. In 2009, the Fountain of Youth was contested around one turn at a mile, which because of the long run down the backstretch can also be particularly stressful. But those were the Procrustean options in Hallandale Beach, Fla.

And so some trainers stabled at Gulfstream responded by sending Triple Crown prospects to Tampa Bay, Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park, where they could race 1 1/16 miles around two turns. Street Sense and Super Saver, for example, were both stabled in Florida, but on their way to winning the Kentucky Derby they never raced at Gulfstream Park.

"It's something the horsemen here asked for," Ritvo said about the 1 1/16-mile distance, "especially for those young horses just turning 3 … Racing here isn't just about the money; it's about preparing in such a way that horses can go on after this season and do great things the rest of the year."

By creating a second finish line, at what would otherwise be the sixteenth pole, Gulfstream will be able to offer races at 1 1/16 miles. With the brief run to the first turn and a shortened stretch, these races won't present an ideal situation. Pletcher said he has concerns about the configuration; but, he continued, he likes the idea of having the opportunity to run a developing horse 1 1/16 miles around two turns. There was, he said, a need for such an opportunity.

And newly minted 3-year-olds will have that opportunity Jan. 1 in the Gulfstream Park Derby. This season's Fountain of Youth, on Feb. 26, also will be run at 1 1/16 miles, making it an attractive stepping stone between the one-mile Holy Bull, on Jan. 29, and the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, on March 31.

Most important, though, is the implication that Gulfstream understands itself and the product it's selling. Its president isn't an impresario who thinks he's selling tickets to a rock concert or an accountant who thinks he's spinning numbers, but rather a racing guy who understands the sport and its fans. Ritvo, Pletcher said, already has had a "big impact" on Gulfstream.

Most important, though, is the implication that Gulfstream understands itself and the product it's selling.

"I couldn't be more impressed with him," Pletcher said about Ritvo, who also has experience on the business side of the game and sees himself as bridging a gap. "It's important that there's somebody in management who understands the needs and problems of the backside [stable area]. I think that's a real problem in racing, and I hope other racetracks see what's happening."

I hope so, too. It would also be refreshing to find anybody in racetrack management who knows something about betting. A racetrack executive once told me with a mischievous smile that his favorite bet was the quinella, which, of course, meant he knew nothing at all about betting on horses. And that's not unusual. Many racetracks are run by people who understand neither racing nor betting. Is it any wonder these racetracks are having problems? They're plagued by a lack of self-awareness.

Stepping off an elevator on the ground floor of a racetrack, I was once confronted by a bevy of lovely girls -- most of them about 16 -- wearing short skirts and cowboy boots. Or cowgirl boots. It was a stunning spectacle. An anxious young man on the elevator with me stared at the girls for several moments, just to reassure himself, I suppose, that he wasn't seeing things.

They weren't old enough to bet on a racehorse or to buy anything more expensive than a soft drink, and so what were these maidens doing at the racetrack? Well, they were there for a concert, like a few thousand other youngsters, and I, like more than a few horseplayers, left early to avoid them. In five years, I thought, when these maidens and their admirers are old enough to bet, they might remember where the racetrack is, and they might even return, but how will the racetrack survive in the meantime?

That isn't to suggest racetracks shouldn't try to attract teens. Even more, though, racetracks should try to accommodate horseplayers and racing fans, horsemen and horses. And that means, most of all, that racetracks need to understand themselves and their product; they need to know what they're selling and to whom. When it opens Saturday with a racing guy as its president, Gulfstream Park will make a move in the right direction.