Gulfstream Park Hopes Renovations Bring Millennials to the Track
"C'mon, boi! One and tree! One and tree! C'mon, boi! C'mon, boi!" The heavyset Jamaican man in the yellow button-down shirt and khaki shorts threw a clenched fist in the air and shouted at the clutter of steeds galloping down the stretch in a cloud of sunburnt mahogany. Another man, middle-aged with scraggly yellow hair and a mustache like a push broom, added his voice to the yelling. A tanned gentleman in a pink polo with a trophy wife by his side turned ruddy as he shouted. A rotund woman in jean shorts anxiously slapped a folded program against her thigh with a methodic pump. Their faces resembled melting, howling gargoyle sculptures.
I held my $5 ticket and tried to keep my gaze on the gray-spotted number-six horse. I bet that horse because it was named Ariel's Flyer. I once dated a girl named Ariel. This seemed like as good a reason as any to place my bet on her.
The cluster of horses made its way toward the finish line. Dirt flew in the air, muscles twitched, nostrils flared -- and that was just the rabid humans watching the race, trying to will their ponies toward victory with yelps and wails. The horses were a clutter of grace and beauty, speed and destruction. Ariel's Flyer was somewhere at the end of the pack. She was in sixth place. Or was it eighth? Shit. Where is she? Did she even get out of the gate?
The Jamaican man bellowed louder. "One and tree! "C'mon, boiii!" He was apparently rooting for the number one and three horses, the sun glimmering off his bald head.
As the horses came flying by, thundering toward the finish, some in the crowd groaned; one or two cheered. Most seemed flustered. Ariel's Flyer's hopes of an upset died in the afternoon sun, taking my five bucks with it. This was horseracing. A few quick minutes of exhilaration, followed by an ethereal moment of anticipation, quickly ending in dashed hopes.
And it was pretty fucking cool.
Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino is a gaudy-looking palatial series of shops and restaurants all nestled in with the old racetrack that reopened in 2006 with the addition of a casino. And much like anything involving the entertainment business, Gulfstream wants to reach out to the younger demographic. It wants millennials to drop their X-Box Live for a second and come check out real-life horses running around a milelong track and place some bets and maybe get the itch to do it again.
It wants to make it family-friendly. There are plans to build a bowling alley, and soon it'll construct a water park with a massive sculpture of Pegasus, the winged horse, that'll be visible for miles.
But for now, they invited me to sell what they've got. I'm not a millennial, so a Gen-X news blogger would have to do. I decided to go along because, like most people growing up in South Florida, I'd never set foot in a racetrack, mostly because I thought watching horses run in a circle was stupid.
I was greeted at the door by the South Florida ambassador for America's Best Racing -- a company whose sole purpose is to push horseracing onto the masses and develop fanship.
I expected to meet an old, weathered man with wispy white hair and suntan marks on his face where he wore his shades. I expected a guy drenched in cynicism and anger, ranting about how young people don't appreciate the sport of horseracing and that kids these days and their newfangled websites are a bunch of lazy assholes.
Instead, I met Vince Matthews -- young, energetic, friendly. A guy who is crazy passionate about horseracing. A guy who is convinced young people like himself can fall in love with the sport. And a guy who knows how to throw down a few beers.
Vince would be my steward into horseracing culture. He'd be the Mickey to my Rocky. The Obi-Wan to my Luke.
He walked me to the bar. A bald-headed mustached fellow with eyebrows like fat caterpillars and a smile that reminded me of piano keys asked me what I wanted. His nametag read "Tony."
Black Label on the rocks, and a race program.
As we drank and talked, Vince regaled me with stories of growing up in New York, where his father would take him to Saratoga, one of the most storied racetracks in the country, every summer.
He told me of some crazy shit that goes on at racetracks.
"A guy got totally hammered and ran onto the track during a race," Vince says. "He just stood there and then began taking swings at the horses as they ran by. Jockeys didn't know what to do. Here was this guy that just appeared in the middle of the track."
He told me of the reopening of Gulfstream a couple of years back when the gate failed to open during the first race.
"The tractor that pulls the gate to the side after the horses are released had a blown engine," Vince says. "The horses had to stop midrace because the gate was still on the track. Jockeys were forced to pull up their horses. It was crazy."
He even told me of some unsavory characters who have come and gone. One owner with "connections" once apparently had trouble with a disgruntled jockey and handled it as only people with "connections" would.
"I won't fire you," the owner allegedly told the jockey. "But if you continue with this, I can't guarantee you won't meet with an 'accident.'"
After learning how to handicap horses -- a complicated mess involving numbers and wins and race experience that I'd never remember, but something Vince clearly has a knack for -- I waded through the meandering crowd. Gulfstream is nothing if not a great place to people-watch in between races.
Pretty much everyone was middle-aged. I could see why Vince's company so badly wants to get some young people in here.
The cheap booze and free parking is a good start. But mostly, the cheap booze.
Still, the atmosphere was rich with cocktails and laughter and people madly scribbling in their race forms on this day.
"It's a great way to spend your day off," a woman named Lori told me as she looked at me from above her reading glasses.
"Oh, I love it," said a man named Sid. "I've been coming here for, what, 18 years. You come here. The parking is free. The drinks are cheap. The betting is cheap, depending on what you wanna do. And it's a fantastic way to waste an afternoon, you know?"
One man who apparently placed the wrong bet on one of the betting machines stopped me and frantically asked for help.
"Shit," he said with a wide glare. "What do I do?"
Tony the bartender calmly pointed toward the betting window and told the man to change his bet there. The man ran. Tony looked at me and grinned.
A disembodied voice blared over the speaker asking folks to place their final bets.
Vince took me upstairs to the press box to see the voice in action.
There I met Pete Aiello, a bear of a man with a big voice and big personality. The area where he calls the races is a tiny office with a semitriangular window that juts outward to give him a bird's-eye view of the backstretch chute.
We briefly talked betting as the countdown to the next race began. He told me it's much like playing fantasy football, with stats and analysis -- only the games are four days a week, every 20 minutes.
Pete picks up a pair of binoculars midconversation, clicks on the speaker, and his voice goes from regal friendly guy to full-on race-announcer mode. He calls the race with a polished flair. A horse named Laughing All the Way shoots out of the gate and dominates the entire race.
"And Laughing All the Way is laughing all the way to the finish line," Pete declares. Some people are born for this.
Gulfstream announcer Pete Aiello calls the race from his birds-eye-view perch.
Back down by the bar, I run into Sid again. He's got a shit-eating grin. He won 50 bucks. I ask Sid how he chooses his bets.
"Oh, I read up on the horses every day," he says. "But you never know. Sometimes you just like the horse's gait. Sometimes you have a gut feeling. It's what makes it fun."
I unfurl my race program and ask Vince for help. He likes the number-eight horse. I go against my instincts to listen to a dude who knows what the hell he's talking about and decide to bet on six -- Ariel's Flyer. Ten-to-one odds. To win.
Before placing the bet, we walk over to a grandstand area where trainers parade the horses before taking them to the track. This is where people can study the equines, see if there's something they like or dislike. An attitude, a twitch, a gait, anything in the animal's attitude or body language to give them a betting edge. I like the horsey's pretty colors.
Vince then walks me through a touch-screen betting machine -- a fairly simple procedure in which you put in your cash, click the amount you want to bet ($5! cheap!), click on your horse's name, and let it ride.
It was all a fairly innocuous experience until those trumpets blared and Pete's voice called out for the number-five race to begin. I wagered only five dollars, but holy shit was I excited. I felt a kinship with Ariel's Flyer. She was my horse. She was my destiny to winning probably something that would amount to $23 and change. I felt my blood pressure surge a little. It was a wonder why more elderly people didn't just keel over and die in these places. It's a high-pressure, excitable moment. You must be this tall to ride the ride.
The gate hurled open, the horses shot out in a thunderclap, and I was suddenly part of the maniacal throng, hoping, waiting, wishing, screaming.
Vince told me Ariel's Flyer had a decent chance because she's running on the inside, which would give her a short track. But she got swallowed up by the others in a cloud of dust and sadness.
Ariel's Flyer didn't win. Vince's horse came in second.
But the rush was worth it.
Scanning the scatter of people, I quickly thought of Sid and his wise, old, sage-like ways. He was a white-haired well-dressed gentleman, with perfectly white teeth. A stark contrast to the yellow-haired scraggly man who stood by me now. But that's what's cool about this place, in a lot of ways.
Gulfstream welcomes all kinds of people from all walks of life. No matter your race, gender, or income, people are all one here. Sure, some bet bigger than others, but it doesn't matter.
In the end, we're all crazy people yelling at horses running in a circle.
And that's pretty fantastic.
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