Stayin' Kinda Alive

Despite Three Dog Night, the pool of Gulfstream bettors continues to shrink

But Barnum, Veeck, and McMahon were all freewheeling entrepreneurs with an instinct for the outrageous. Savin works for an unwieldy, gray corporation with sagging profits and a client base of contentious old farts. Gulfstream is owned by Magna Entertainment Corp. (MEC), a spinoff of the giant Canadian auto-parts maker, Magna International. MEC owns a dozen racetracks, including Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, site of the Preakness Stakes, and Santa Anita Park in Southern California. According to the company's most recent earnings statement, revenues were up last year, but income was down -- by 46 percent.

In fact, Savin sounds more like hotel mogul Steve Wynn, who turned the Las Vegas casinos into family entertainment, than McMahon or Veeck. He wants to turn Gulfstream into "an entertainment center," he says, not just a racetrack.

"We'll always feature horseracing, just as the bread and butter of the Las Vegas hotels is casino gambling," he says. "But it's not the Venetian casino that you go to now, it's" -- uttering this as if it's preceded by the blare of trumpets -- "the Venetian."

Scott Savin, the horses, and the "crowd"
Colby Katz
Scott Savin, the horses, and the "crowd"

The boldest Gulfstream event so far, the closest to the Barnum model, was "Sunshine Millions" on January 25. Dixieland bands greeted customers at all the entrances, contestants in a Hawaiian bikini beauty contest were on display, a Brazilian samba band snaked through the crowd, the band America gave a 90-minute concert and, oh yes, there was horseracing. The bettors in the crowd had eight high-stakes races to handicap -- four at the track and four on a simulcast from Santa Anita -- with a total of $3.6 million in purses.

Almost 19,000 people turned out for the event. Not bad, but still way behind recent race-day appearances at the track by Bryan Adams and Styx, each of whom drew sell-out crowds of about 30,000, and Cyndi Lauper, who brought in about 24,000. It's the eighth year of the concerts.

Savin has taken some lumps from racing purists for his hustling style. "I've been vilified, hanged in effigy," he says dolorously. There's no way around it. All of the squawky electric guitars and the thumping back beats are turning off some of the old guys.

Down near the clubhouse on a recent Wednesday, Pete Russo, a track regular, looked out at the panorama of royal palms and impatiens, with beach condo towers poking up on the horizon, and he was unmoved. Russo was there for one thing.

"Gamblers aren't lookin' to hear music and eat hot dogs," Russo says. "When you gamble, you've got to see how the horses look when they come out. A horse might be sweated up; he might not look right. You've got to be aware of everything. The music just destroys your concentration."

Savin, who comes from a prominent family of horse breeders, understands what Russo's talking about. "I'm a racing purist," he insists, "but you have to evolve; you have to change. You have to offer more than one live horserace every 25 minutes. That kind of show can't go on."

Savin's greatest hope for long-term viability rests not with tinkering with the laws or with flashier entertainment or with keeping the codgers happy. It rests with those families spreading out picnics on the grass on the track's infield.

Families, ergo kids, ergo future gamblers. So goes the thinking. "When a kid gets up next to the rail and sees those thoroughbred horses galloping past, kicking up dirt, we're planting some seeds," Savin says. The little boy with the dreamy eyes, sitting on the track's infield -- maybe, if the stars line up correctly -- may someday nurture a $200-a-day gambling habit. And that, at least from the perspective of track officials, is a good thing.

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