In the days before anyone in the racing business south of Toronto had ever heard of Frank Stronach, the battle over the prime winter dates in Florida was almost a spectator sport renewed annually and played out before an audience of those interested in the outcome and a panel of elected officials representing the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.
The stakes were high. The middle dates — early January through mid-March — embraced what is known in Florida as “the season,” when humans and horses from the East, Midwest and parts of Canada fled southward in escape of the long, dark northern winter. The area’s economic well being was directly dependent upon robust tourism during winter. The racing in Florida, staging area for the Triple Crown and winter home to the most powerful racing stables in the East, was as good as it gets.
Lush, seductive and rich in history, Hialeah Park was still the destination of what passes for aristocracy in this country, snowbird horseplayers and host to traditionally important races, the Flamingo Stakes and Widener Handicap among them. Gulfstream Park, then owned by The Donn Family, was almost a tropical version of Monmouth Park, in New Jersey — a mile from the beach, probably the prototypical Florida racetrack. In the days when the game was still played on-track, before account wagering, simulcasting and the Internet, they were very different racetracks in tone and atmosphere, each with unique charms and every year their representatives went before the regulatory body empowered to award racing dates and pleaded their cases for the middle dates. These were bitter fights that sometimes spilled into the courts. Usually, the two tracks would operate in the prime season in alternate years, a fragile rotation that neither pleased nor punished either track. Gulfstream, which argued that it produced more revenue for the state when awarded the middle dates, was the stronger of the two, benefiting from the population migration north from Miami, which was fast becoming a predominantly Latin city during the 1980s. Broward County, the southern border of which is straddled by Gulfstream, was growing wildly. Yet, though economically disadvantaged, Hialeah was viable when it operated in the mid-winter period. This delicate balance was pushed past the tipping point with the acquisition of Gulfstream by Frank Stronach’s Magna Entertainment, now MI Developments. Stronach, in 2002, was successful in an effort to convince officials to walk away from the allocation of racing dates, leaving tracks free to operate whenever they wished. Hialeah, overmatched when forced to compete head to head, ripped to shreds by a hurricane and faced with what amounted to suicide, was soon out of business. In subsequent years, the two remaining tracks agreed upon dates before submitting allocations to the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, which rubber-stamped the request. The landscape in Florida has changed in the last decade. Calder, which was never challenged in the late-spring to early winter dates, is now part of the Churchill Downs Empire. Gulfstream is essentially a casino with a racetrack in the backyard surrounded by all manner of retail development. Hialeah, recently granted a license to operate slot machines, is again operational and site of a winter meeting for quarter horses. Owner John Brunetti plans a billion-dollar renovation and commercial development. He also has plans eventually to resume thoroughbred racing. Squabbling racetracks operating in the same vicinity, all with different owners who share no common purpose — but should — can be nothing except dysfunctional, particularly when treacherous Stronach is part of the mix. Well enough is never well enough in Stronach’s world. His company recently announced its intention to begin racing at Gulfstream in December of 2011, a period long occupied solely by Calder, which countered with a threat to race year-round. The gantlet has been thrown down.
Calder announced that plan last week in an amended dates filing under which it will hold races Fridays through Sundays every week from July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012. That plan would pit Calder head-to-head with Gulfstream Park, which is only a few miles to the east and north, from early January through late April. This is only in the initial stage of bitterness and rancor, and is certain to gain momentum in the wake of Stronach’s latest divisive maneuver. The character of the market demands orderly rotation since most non-managerial personnel move from track to track with the changing season. Eventually, Hialeah will rejoin the dysfunction that has taken over thoroughbred racing in South Florida and in the current climate; the whole is unlikely to equal the sum of its parts. Stronach’s open-market position has no weight in a regulated industry and Florida authorities abdicated their responsibility when they left the playground to the children. South Florida is an important racing market, particularly during the winter months, but it remains fragile. Both Calder and Gulfstream have long-established roles in the orderly conduct of the sport and there is enough of this pie to feed everyone, even Hialeah when it is ready to take its place in the frame, perhaps with a short, boutique meeting in January. A responsible Division of Part-Mutuel Wagering would step in and retake control of date allocation and impose order if not peace. Racing’s leaders speak often of cooperation among industry participants in deference to the greater good. Obviously, the message has not reached South Florida.
Originally Posted on ESPN