Gulfstream Park back on track

The 2009 Gulfstream season is just 12 days old, but it's already clear that this meet is going to be a lot better than its predecessors. Management has adopted a less-is-more philosophy to its racing schedule and the result has been a marked improvement in the quality of racing.

For the last several years, Gulfstream has raced six days a week, which was too much to support a horse population low on both quantity and quality. Too many Gulfstream cards included too many cheap races and/or races with small fields. A typical January day at Gulfstream was looking a lot more like a typical July day at Calder.

At some tracks, that sort of thing doesn't matter. They put together races, don't care that much about quality and know that someone will still bet on the stuff. Gulfstream was supposed to be different; it was meant to be an oasis, a place where the horseplayer could always find full fields, good racing and promising 3-year-olds taking meaningful steps toward the Kentucky Derby. Those elements had been missing of late.

In many ways, they're back. By simply cutting out one day of racing a week, the Gulfstream racing product has undergone a transformation, and it's good to see. The fields are fuller and the racing is a lot better.

Gulfstream is averaging 10.06 horses per race, a remarkably good number in an era where horses races so infrequently that the five-horse field is becoming an unfortunate but indelible part of the game. Through the first 12 days of racing in 2008, they had 9.19 horses per race.

Even more significant is the upgrade in quality. With fewer races being run each week, the ones largely being eliminated are the lowest-level events. In 2008, 52 of the first 112 races at the meet were either starter allowances or claimers where the price tag was less than $35,000. This year, through the first 112 races, that number is down to 36.

How this affects betting handle is going to be a tough read. Bettors always gravitate toward the classier races and races with large fields, so Gulfstream should benefit from offering improved racing cards. But they'll be bringing in money five days a week instead of six and will be doing so at a time where virtually every racetrack in the country is getting hammered by the economy.

But it will be hard to argue that the reduced racing schedule hasn't been a success. It has pumped new life into the Gulfstream product and helped reconfirm its status as the premier winter meet in the country. Gulfstream management got this one right.

Hopefully, some other tracks will follow Gulfstream's lead. There's way too much racing out there, one of many problems the sport has that can be easily fixed. One place that definitely needs to race less often is Aqueduct, which one writer dubbed Finger Lakes South because the quality of racing has slipped so badly. Five days a week in the winter is just too much. Monmouth Park, a perfect summer track, should not be racing in the fall. The Maryland racing circuit should run less often, at least until slot machines come in. The same goes for racing in Northern California, where Russell Baze seems to be 3-5 in every race and every race seems to have five horses.

Old School
While much was made of the fact that an 11-year-old horse won a race this week at Aqueduct, I don't think the victory was a reason to celebrate. When Tour of the Cat, who is owned and trained by David Jacobson, won a $7,500 claimer after a steep drop in class at Aqueduct Monday, I didn't see it as a matter of him being an old war horse but a classy old pro who has been good to his many owners and deserves better than still slugging it out in cheap races at an age when he should have been retired.

The latest win was Tour of the Cat's 20th in 75 career starts. He's earned $1,094,558 and has won 10 stakes races, including the Grade II Richter Scale at Gulfstream in 2003. Once a borderline Kentucky Derby prospect, he also finished second in the 2001 Flamingo.

I have no idea how sound the horse is or if he's in any imminent danger of breaking down, but hasn't he done enough? The 11-year-old needs to be off munching grass somewhere, not grinding out a few more dollars for his owner and trainer.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.