The slow and agonizing death of horse racing in Florida continues. Before there were only symptoms. Now the disease has crept to the surface and Floridians are watching it spread with their own eyes.
What used to be called "the sport of kings" has devolved into a sport of kings, queens and jacks -- casino games -- a vehicle to turn former horsebettors into casino slot players.
You really can see for yourself all the proof you need at a joke of a venue called Gulfstream Park West. It's the former Calder Race Course. What prompts me to write this now is, the racing season resumed in Miami Gardens Oct. 4 and runs until Nov. 26. I was invited by text to come on down.
This fall's Gulfstream Park West meet will be the fourth under the existing lease agreement between The Stronach Group and Churchill Downs Inc., the parent company of Calder. In 2014 the two entities entered into a unique agreement through which Gulfstream would lease 40 racing dates from Calder, the minimum required by the state in order for Calder to maintain its casino license, operate the meet and also race unopposed at Gulfstream the remainder of the calendar year.
As part of the six-year lease, Gulfstream was given control of the operations of the race track, paddock, jockey's room and 450 stalls of the 1,800 which were on-site in 2014. Every stall but the 450 in the lease, plus a whole bunch of other things including toilets, have been torn down.
Once-venerable Calder is now a casino. Calder Casino.
That's not all.
The public is welcome to watch and wager on horses at Gulfstream Park West, but amenities are ... well ... limited.
“We tore down the grandstands and there’s no simulcasting. You can only bet on the races in front of you,” says senior racing ambassador Nancy Berry. “There are programs and machines and a food truck, and there’s limited seating under a tent.”
A tent. Now that's cozy. Traditional, too -- if you're a Bedouin living in the Sahara. For the rest of us, maybe not the sportive outing we'd hoped for.
We'll get daily races from Wednesdays to Fridays, with 10 on Saturdays and Sundays. Post time is 1:15.
The races fulfill a state regulation that says for a casino to operate, it must be attached to a pari-mutuel. Again, for Calder Casino, that’s Gulfstream Park West, which leases the track.
Remember, too, that this is the state where an appeals court ruled in September that regulators were wrong in 2014 to try to punish a tiny North Florida pari-mutuel facility for staging noncompetitive two-horse races -- no matter how idiotic -- to meet the requirements of its state license.
Never mind that the races were an embarrassment, a national laughingstock, recorded on video showing "tired, reluctant, skittish or disinterested horses moving at a slow pace down the dust-choked path."
Wrote the administrative law judge whose decision was overturned seven weeks ago, “Horses often simply stood at the starting line before slowly plodding down the track. In one instance, a horse actually backed up, until a bystander took it by the lead, thereafter giving the horse a congratulatory slap on the rump when it began to move in a forward direction.”
Nobody saw this appeals court decision coming, including me. Until I looked closer. What else could the court have decided? Florida actually has no legal definition of a "horse race," though in May 2013 Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham ruled the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering policy treating barrel races as “traditional” is in violation of Florida law. And, of course, the staggering political influence at the DPMW, particularly since the turn of the century, helps nothing or no one but special interests.
Bottom line, Hamilton Downs' crazy races didn't create Gulfstream Park West; it was the other way around. Pari-mutuels need their licenses to get into the casino business and the forces behind Gulfstream showed the way.
For decades horse racing brought the tracks and horsemen money, don't let anyone try to fool you -- but nowhere near the quick, easy take a slot parlor can provide.
So here we are, looking at a $1.4 billion horse industry in Florida, a way of life in many of our counties, on its way out. For those with the stomach to look, it's right there at once-majestic Calder. Deliberate decline in plain sight.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith