You won't hear many complaints from the crowd at Gulfstream Park on a balmy weekday afternoon. The clientele at the track, which opened its 89-day season this month, is heavy on folks from New York and Michigan. For the most part, these are smiling, middle-aged dudes in Hawaiian shirts or silk T-shirts, looking around at the chaos of TV monitors, binging slot machines, and galloping horses as if they'd died and gone to heaven. Shoot, it's in the mid-30s in New York and raining. Here, you can step onto the apron in front of the clubhouse and catch a whiff of the Atlantic at 80 degrees.
"It's the best racetrack I've ever been to," said Larry Phillips, a landscaper from the Bronx, blinking in the sunshine along the rail.
Of course, the notion of sporty luxury — the divine sense of being offered an array of irresistible pleasures — stands to be tested a lot more demandingly on Big Race days. It's been two years since Gulfstream's parent company, Magna Entertainment, tore down the track's airy old grandstand (with almost 20,000 seats) and went boldly into slots and poker, turning the place into a "racino." Now, if you're not ordering a Cobb salad or a cosmopolitan in one of Gulfstream's upscale restaurants, it's pretty hard to find a seat.
There are some picnic tables and chairs along the backstretch, but seats in the prime area next to the finish line have been removed. The open pavement along the rail, where the real track fans used to mill around, exchanging tips out of the sides of their mouths, is a lot narrower than it used to be.
Tailpipe rolled his eyes. Just wait until Florida Derby Day on March 29, when 25,000 or 30,000 try to jam into the track. Racing fans will be vying for a couple of square feet of pavement just to open their Daily Racing Form.
Meanwhile, what's going on out in the track's formerly vast parking lot along Federal Highway? "Retail," says Mike Mullaney, the track's director of media relations. That huge skeletal structure out there will be, by sometime next year, a shopping center.
So what we have here — after a three-year evolution that must look from outer space like a spreading virus — is no longer a racetrack, eh?
"It's built to be a casino," says Gene Lotti, a lanky figure who was stretched out on a chair in front of the clubhouse the other day, having commandeered one of a handful of seats in an area where there used to be hundreds. "The idea of watching live races is a thing of the past."
Still, it's a beautiful facility, even if the best place to watch the races is on a television monitor, says Lotti, a horse broker who gets to a lot of tracks. "He's a doer," he says of Magna chairman Frank Stronach.
Yeah, but what has he done?
"It's OK," interjects an adrenaline-charged guy named Marty, with a veteran railbird's grasp on reality. "It's great if you get winners."
Tailpipe wishes Marty luck, just hoping that, in the coming years, he can still see actual horses racing around a track.
Last year, law enforcement officers penned 36,667 tickets for red light infractions in Broward County and 19,779 in Palm Beach. Big numbers, sure. But it takes a clever entrepreneur to see profit there. How do you spell making-money-from-gas-gunnin'-drivers? ATS. That's for American Traffic Solutions, an Arizona-based company that puts up those odious cameras at intersections.
The City of Pembroke Pines, citing public-safety concerns, has signed up to snag red light runners. It's not clear how much the city will make from the deal (millions, probably), but ATS will get a cut of each $125 ticket paid. Hallandale Beach is also talking about getting on board (though Davie has put the brakes on, for now).
So, as insidious as the cameras are, at least they'll contribute to the overall safety on our streets, right?
Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association, a grassroots organization based in Wisconsin, points out that most red light runners miss the amber light by just a half-second. "We believe red light cameras actually are a safety hazard — they lead to more rear-end accidents and perpetuate bad engineering," Baxter says. "Rather than fixing the problem, cities are putting up cameras and profiting from it. That, to us, is immoral."
For now, the fines levied against red light runners caught on-camera don't have much bite. When a police officer catches an automobile blowing through a red light, the driver gets four points on his license and a fine. But laws governing driving in Florida don't address red light infractions caught on-camera, so cities can issue only code violations. If violators ignore the fines, they might get a black mark on their credit reports.
Aside from the fact that some of the most problematic intersections in the state — like Pembroke's own Pines Boulevard and Flamingo Road, often characterized as the most dangerous intersection in the state — don't qualify for ATS cameras because they're state roads, the cameras will do little to halt traffic madness elsewhere, some candid city officials acknowledge.
"It's basically a way of taxing the residents of our own city under the auspices of public safety," says Keith London, a commissioner in Hallandale Beach who promises to do everything in his power to "squash" his city's efforts to set up cameras. "The agenda item came up during a budget workshop. This isn't about public safety — this is all about money."
Tailpipe will think about this the next time a FedEx truck plows into his backside at the edge of an ATS-monitored crossing.
Barack Obama owed his stunning victory in the Iowa's January 3 presidential caucuses largely to his appeal to a younger electorate, voters who in past elections were cynical about politics and ambivalent about candidates. Here was a candidate who offered hope.
If Obama could electrify the Iowa countryside, Tailpipe thought, maybe his soul-stirring speeches could also invigorate Floridians, who are so blasé about voting that they can hardly punch a ballot without leaving a hanging chad.
The Obama website directed South Floridians to gather on January 8 to watch the results of the New Hampshire Primary and to plan for future campaign action. The invitation contained a caveat: The VFW post on West Avenue in Miami Beach could hold only 100.
Tailpipe breathed a sigh of relief when his RSVP was accepted. Surely, this was the hottest ticket in South Beach.
On New Hampshire election night, Tailpipe found no traffic jam around the VFW. There was no line outside. No crowds were spilling out of the building.
Inside, two dozen activists gathered around a large-screen television set. The Obama vanguard? Well, no. They appeared to be evenly split among supporters of John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and — at last — Obama.
So had Obama's legendary charms lifted South Floridians from their legendary lethargy? Was political activism beginning to build to a crescendo before Florida's own January 29 primary?
"Nope," said one Democratic organizer, giving a shrug. "This is it."
Hacking for Hacks?
But wait. There is election fervor in Florida.
More than 8,000 people voted online for a song to replace Stephen Foster's creaky old "Swanee" as the Florida State Song.
The winner, announced last Friday, was "Florida (Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky)" by Pompano Beach music teacher Jan Hinton.
But hold on, folks; this thing's not over. Aside from the fact that the three finalists, selected from a field of 243 submitted to the Florida Music Educators Association, have been largely excoriated by the state's hipsters (and the winner, with its drawn-out repetition of the state name, sounds a lot like the scurrilously insulting depiction of the state as "Flori-duh"), there's growing resistance.
Now the also-rans are getting hardcore. They're organizing. And like Ron Paul or Mike Huckabee, they're making some last-minute headway.
For example, some years ago, Lawrence Hurwit and Israel Abrams wrote a song for then-Gov. Bob Graham. "We should have an upbeat song for upbeat occasions," Hurwit recalled Graham telling him at a New Year's party in the mid-'80s.
Hurwit delivered a song — called simply "Florida" — and the legislature voted it an "official state welcome song" in 1985. Hurwit, a Miami resident, found out about FMEA's contest too late to enter it, so he has now launched a campaign to "Hold the Florida State Song Vote," going so far as to hire a P.R. firm to publicize his effort.
Meanwhile, Graham Fountain and Warren Halstrom of Okaloosa and Leon counties, respectively, were upset that their "Oh Florida, My Sweet Home," didn't make the final three. So they enlisted their buddy, state Rep. Dave Murzin, R-Pensacola, to see if their ditty could be an official "state anthem" existing alongside the state song.
As the battle rages, FMEA spokesperson Carmen White has been fending off criticism. The point she'd most like to make is that, since the matter was run entirely by volunteers, no taxpayer dollars were wasted on the contest. (Brainpower? Now that's another story.)
The also-rans may have one recourse: The winning song still has to get through the legislature before it's officially adopted. See? This is America, and just because you get the popular vote, it doesn't mean you win.
Were touch-screen voting machines involved?