Gulfstream Rapture

That Weird Casino Sound

For nearly three years now, Tailpipe has been watching with disbelief the radical transformation of Gulfstream Park. It has been like seeing an elaborate piece of slow-motion computer-generated imagery — a futuristic tank becoming a rocket-powered flying machine, say, or Dracula turning into a bat. Since 2004, the old racetrack in Hallandale Beach has gone from a balmy hangout for snowbirds with time and money on their hands to a dismal construction site to a tent city (a temporary setup the track provided for racing fans two seasons ago) to its current manifestation.

This is how a racetrack makes room for a casino, folks.

So what do we end up with? Before the 'Pipe visited Gulfstream the other day, he wasn't sure whether it would be a racetrack with slot machines or a casino with some ponies. Now he knows.

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C. STILES
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South Beach, Davie
South Beach, Davie

Almost all of the horseplayers the 'Pipe spoke to at the track, most of them searching for favorable signs in the little nuggets of horse information in the agate print of the Daily Racing Form — from previous race results and recent workouts to the presence of blinkers or the blood-thinner Lasix — said they had no interest in the casino upstairs. Slots and horseracing? They're as distinct as two stars in separate galaxies.

"I wouldn't bet the slots if my life depended on it," said Dennis Doran, 60, a manufacturer from Naples, savoring a healthy payout for his winning exacta bet in the first race. "It's strictly luck. It's like flipping coins."

Meanwhile, in Gulfstream's casino on the second floor of the new clubhouse, slots players were plugged so tightly into their whirring, dinging machines that no lousy horserace seemed capable of dislodging them.

So what about "synergy"? Folks from the racing conglomerate Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns 12 racetracks as well as off-track betting facilities and a racing television network, have been talking for years about ways to get new bettors to the track's betting windows. For a while, they tried to entice a middle-of-the-road concert-going audience with weekly concerts by bands like Blondie, Pat Benatar, and America. The idea was that music fans would see horses racing past and get interested in handicapping. There was even some moderate success at the betting windows.

But then, after voters approved slots for Broward County racetracks two years ago, it was clear that there would be no more idyllic picnics, with Rod Stewart prancing on a makeshift stage and thoroughbreds kicking up clods nearby. Magna was after more profitable prey.

What the company has created is a schizoid entity called a "racino." As far as the horseracing crowd is concerned, the casino is a kind of babysitting operation for their wives.

"The only benefit," Doran says, "is that my wife doesn't like horseracing at all. But she'd come with me to use the slots."

"I think that's the way it's breaking down," adds Ronald Bancroft, a retired phone company worker. "The track for husbands, the casino for wives."

For the rest, it's the same old story. The old guys who flock to the rails of racetracks — a demanding crowd that isn't fooled by cosmetics — are still pissed off about the loss of their old stomping grounds. There aren't enough places for people to sit, it's hard to find the late scratches, the standing-room areas are overcrowded and uncomfortable. On weekends and big-event days, there's not even enough room to open a newspaper.

The racing industry is headed in a big way toward online betting, with players watching televised events at home, some contend.

"These people don't care about the horse bettors anymore," says Tony Cioffi, 69, a retired postal worker. "If they could turn the whole place into condos, they would."

Management has heard this before. But the Magna brass insists the company is still first and foremost about horseracing. They heard the squawks from the railbirds last year, they say, when the attractive new Spanish-colonial-style clubhouse opened, and they've responded. For one thing, there's a new grandstand area on the north side of the track, where the $2 bettors can peruse their Racing Forms in peace. (Cioffi looks ruefully at the temporary metal seats and recalls when African-Americans were relegated to segregated sections at the track. "Now they're segregating by class," he says.) Bettors can also watch the horses being saddled in an outdoor saddling area, noting which nag is foaming at the mouth and which is so eager to go that he's stepping on his groom's feet.

What about synergy? "Is that important?" asks Mike Mullaney, the track's director of media relations. "I used to think you had to have horseplayers playing slot machines and slots players betting horses. But what's the difference? It's everybody having a good time."

Maybe so. But the fading track crowd sees the breach getting wider and all the chirping and beeping from the casino, with an underlying electronic hum, rapturous and intoxicating at about middle C, drowning out the thud of hoofbeats and the jingle of bridles.

Little Bullets

Staff Sgt. Matthew Zedwick, fully clad in a desert camouflage battle dress, stands in the door breach position, aiming his shortened 12-gauge shotgun at a bunch of civilians.

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