The Divine Wager

Dante at Gulfstream

Tailpipe is happy to confirm that there really is a functioning racetrack in southeastern Broward County now, complete with occasionally predictable nags, a splendid oval-shaped dirt-and-turf running track, and an elegant new lemon-colored clubhouse. Gulfstream Park, in the midst of a $171 million renovation, has escaped from the wilderness of tents and pushcarts that characterized the 2005 season.

Not that any of the track's regulars are satisfied. Horse bettors are a tough crowd. A touchy, ungrateful, bottomline-obsessed crowd. You want praise? Talk to 'em when the winnings are piling up and you're giving them the inside dope on a 25-to-1 pony in the next race. But offering them a crowded, standing-room-only apron to mill around on and long lines at the betting windows while telling them this is the first step in a long glorious future? They'll laugh in your face.

"It's not built for the people who support racing," Ted Fletcher, a Jamaican-born engineer from Miramar, says with a dolorous look at the mob of rumpled horse bettors standing nearby at close quarters. "It's built for the echelon."

This was during the track's first big event of the 2006 season, Sunshine Millions, when 8,800 horse fans had poured into the clubhouse and surroundings to watch veteran jockey Jerry Bailey run his last race.

At least it was possible to see actual horses running. Last year, sightlines were often blocked by heavy equipment and trailers, limiting the experience to a blur of jockey silks on a television monitor.

Still, Fletcher rolled his eyes like one of those tragic souls trapped in the third or fourth circle of The Inferno. "Look at this," he says. "I'm standing here with a bad back, and I can't find a seat. When I try to read the Racing Form, people keep bouncing into the paper. I got in a betting line a while ago with eight minutes to race time, and they closed the window before I could place my bet."

Did Fletcher's choice win? He turns his head and closes his eyes, a troubled man reliving the horse bettor's ultimate nightmare. "The horse won," he says. The horror.

It was much the same on a balmy Wednesday, a week and a half later, with grizzled handicappers griping about the track, which had appeared miraculously out of the ashes of its previous incarnation. Not enough tellers, not enough seats. And God forbid it should rain. "It rained the other day, and everybody jammed into the breezeway," says retired New Jersey firefighter Bill McLaughlin. "The rooms — the clubhouse rooms — were mobbed."

If the pavement in front of the clubhouse is Inferno, though, 10 Palms, the airy, glassed-in restaurant on the second floor, is much closer to Paradiso. Here, well-dressed horse owners and their guests spread out at linen-covered tables, taking in the unobstructed panorama of one of the nation's premier tracks: palm trees, pampered grass, beachfront condo towers in the distance. There was plenty of room to spread open the Racing Form as waitresses in crisp uniforms scurried back and forth with cocktails and flutes of champagne.

In the next few years, if things work out as planned, diners will also get a glimpse of 1,500 new condos on the Hallandale Beach site, more than 900,000 square feet of new retail space, a multiplex movie theater, and slots, slots, slots (as well as, critics point out, traffic, traffic, traffic).

The "echelon" have always lived in a different world from the rail-hugging handicappers, of course. Maybe they make bigger bets upstairs, but downstairs, the stakes are always much closer to life and death. That can be the kids' milk money that's being wagered. The disparity was plain when Bailey, a sunny, smiling gentleman who has collected six Triple Crown wins (including two Kentucky Derbys) in a 31-year career, made his appearance on a horse named Silver Tree. The restaurant almost levitated with collective fondness as people exchanged their favorite Bailey tales and readied themselves for a Historic Event.

Down along the horse path, where the horses walk from the paddock to the track, the hoi polloi looked on with a lot more stony-eyed skepticism.

"One mo' time, Jerry," muttered a man with a cigar. "Do it for me, baby."

"Jerry Bailey sucks," shouted another, a tense-looking man with wavy hair. Horse bettors carry grudges. What disappointment had Bailey once or twice inflicted on this scowling man? Did one of the favorites that the jockey customarily rides crap out at a bad time? Or did a Bailey mount sneak a nose in at the finish line as the man was already counting his winnings on another horse?

Tailpipe is no fool. It was clear that the smart money this day would be on any horse except Silver Tree. The Bailey mount was a sucker bet — either a sentimental investment in a retiring jockey from the crowd upstairs or, for the scuffed shoes downstairs, a last-gasp shot at recouping some of the day's losses in the ninth race. It was the classic case of the overbet horse, and the track doesn't treat losers kindly. The 'Pipe picked a 50-to-1 longshot who looked a lot more promising than the odds indicated.

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