Birds fly south for the winter in the USA, and so do people. Often, many of the best race horses, trainers and jockeys find themselves in the Sunshine State of Florida.
Still, Florida’s position as a great place for horse lovers might not be so well known. The fact remains, however, the same great weather that makes it a top vacation spot also makes it a perfect place for horses and horse people. Warm—but not steaming hot. Dry—but not a desert. And with everything you need for an easy life within arm’s reach. Living is easy in Florida, regardless of the number of legs you have…
And – in 2017 it’s home to the richest race in the world…
To find proof of what a spell in Florida can do to a horse you don’t have to look back more than a year. In 2013 the two biggest races in the United States—the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic—were won by Orb and Mucho Macho Man, respectively, and they both spent their winters in Florida.
But Florida’s equine heritage is deeper, more valuable and more entertaining than just a pleasant weather forecast, and it is worth your time to visit.
Land of flowers
Christopher Columbus is given credit for discovering “the new world,” but it was Juan Ponce de León who found the mainland of what is now the USA. In 1513, he landed on Florida’s northeast coast, and his ship’s last known navigational reading was 30 degrees, 8 minutes, off the coast of St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S. He claimed the land for Spain and named it La Florida, or land of flowers.
For the last 500 years Florida has been influenced by its Spanish past, and with that past came a love of horses. Not only did Ponce de León give Florida to Spain (at least for a time), he gave Florida horses.
When he returned in 1521 the explorer brought 50 horses and other domestic animals with him. However, the natives were not thrilled with his attempts to move in, and Ponce de León and his men were attacked. They went back to Havana, Cuba, leaving behind the animals. The fight also cost the explorer his life, as it is believed he was hit with a poison arrow during the fight and later died of his wounds.
The horses, however, were in Florida to stay.
In time, tourism became a big industry in Florida, and the tourists needed things to do. Just like in so many other places in the world, a race course was seen as the perfect entertainment venue for both the man on the street and the high rollers from high society. It was a perfect way to spend an afternoon when you grew bored of the beach, and so began Florida’s love affair with horse racing.
One of the oldest existing recreational facilities in Florida is none other than a racetrack, but it is a racetrack with a bittersweet existence.
Hialeah Park, just south of Miami, opened in 1921 and is a name that still brings a gleam to the eye of old racegoers. In 1926 the track was damaged severely by a hurricane, and in 1930 it was sold to Philadelphia horseman Joseph E. Widener. He hired architect Lester Geisler to design a new grandstand, clubhouse facilities, and infield gardens stocked with native flora, fauna, and flamingos. It was meant to be a true Florida icon.
The result was stunning. Hialeah became known as one of the most beautiful racetracks in the world. An Australian totalisator for accepting parimutuel betting was the first in America to be installed, and the track became so famous for its flamingo flocks that it was officially designated as a sanctuary for the American Flamingo by the Audubon Society. Remember the Miami Vice TV show intro?
Although a beloved venue, Thoroughbred racing ceased in 2001 after a change in the state law kept it from having exclusive dates in its competition with the other two race courses in the Miami area – Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course. A filly by the name of Cheeky Miss won the last Thoroughbred race on May 22, 2001.
That was not the end of the track though. In 2009 it was announced track owner John Brunetti was awarded a racing permit, and in November of that year the historic racetrack reopened…but only for quarter horse racing.
Today Gulfstream Park is the flagship of Florida racing. In 2014, the track celebrated its 75th year, and it is run by a group of people who have a lot of big plans down the road. The track is owned by the Stronach Group—which also owns Santa Anita, Pimlico, Golden Gate Fields and a number of other tracks—and most of the executives are horsemen, which gives it an unusual edge against most of its competition.
In 2017 Gulfstream is host to what will be the Biggest Race in the world – the Pegasus Cup!
“The whole area is like nothing ever seen at a racetrack. It’s actually like a small hispanic town, with dwindling streets, cool shops and restaurants”
Located between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Gulfstream opened in 1939 and has been one of the most important racing venues in the USA.
If you are hoping to see a future Triple Crown race winner, this is not a bad place to be in the winter. Gulfstream offers a series of prep races leading up to the Kentucky Derby that has had a significant impact not only the Run for the Roses, but the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes as well.
The Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth are prep races for the Florida Derby, which in turn is a major prep for the Kentucky Derby.
History proves this to be true as in the first 62 runnings of the Florida Derby, 42 starters have gone on to win 57 Triple Crown events. In 2013, Orb won the Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby.
“Our winter meet is when all of the top trainers and jockeys in the U.S. come down here,” said Gulfstream’s marketing director Mike Nyman, who was an owner/breeder for more than 20 years before taking the job. “It is for several reasons, and obviously the weather is first and foremost. There aren’t too many tracks that are operable in the winter, and we have one of them. We have a lot of good things going on, and it is the tourist season, so a lot of people that are down here during the winter spend their time over here.”
When Orb crossed the finish line first in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, he became the 22nd horse to win the Run for the Roses after racing in the Florida Derby, and the 13th horse to win both contests.
2008 Big Brown
1995 Thunder Gulch
1994 Go for Gin (4th in Fla. Derby)
1991 Strike the Gold (2nd)
1981 Pleasant Colony (5th)
1979 Spectacular Bid
1975 Foolish Pleasure (3rd)
1974 Cannonade (2nd)
1968 Forward Pass
1966 Kauai King (5th)
1964 Northern Dancer
1961 Carry Back
1960 Venetian Way (2nd)
1958 Tim Tam
1957 Iron Liege (3rd)
1953 Dark Star (13th)
The first time the track was redone, a casino was added. Furthermore the track added The Village, a center of shopping, dining, nighttime entertainment and cultural activities designed to engage entire families. The whole area is like nothing ever seen at a racetrack. It’s actually like a small Hispanic town, with dwindling streets, cool shops and restaurants where you can sit down outside and enjoy a glass of wine. It is a big change from looking at a parking lot. From Main Street, you can see the parade ring, surrounded by balconies from where you expect to see Zorro preparing to swing down onto a horse.
Far from the traditional American mall or shopping center, this is a place where ”not so interested in racing” members of a family can spend an afternoon while the others go racing.
“While the industry has been having some issues and most tracks have decreasing handle and attendance, we have made a real big effort on track to engage families, younger people, and women,” said Nyman. “You will see the mix of customers at the track is different than at most places.
“We do a lot of things to really engage customers, especially first time customers. We have ambassadors here to help them read a program or make a bet. We will take families into the walking ring, the winner’s circle, the jockeys’ room and the broadcast booth. The typical person people think of at a racetrack is a 65-year-old white male smoking a cigar, and that is just not the way the demographic is at our track now. It’s gotten a lot younger and we like that.”
Clearly the track is doing something right. At a time when many venues are struggling both with handle and attendance, Gulfstream is not. A record crowd was on hand to watch Orb’s victory in the Florida Derby, while total handle on Gulfstream’s 13 races that day was close to $25 million. On-track handle was $1.37 million, up 7.16 percent. General admission and parking are free.
“We have a lot of people who are very engaged in the business, are passionate about the business, care about the business and don’t believe in its demise. We believe we can bring it back to health, and we have done that,” said Nyman.
While it is true Gulfstream has found success in many of the changes it has made, one area where it might have misstepped is the grandstand. During the initial renovation, grandstand seating was reduced from around 30,000 to a few thousand. That is one of the issues being addressed by the current renovation.
“Obviously there were some mistakes, and nobody is perfect when you roll out these new innovative efforts,” said track president Tim Ritvo, who previously was a jockey and a trainer. “We are doing a lot of tweaking, and we are continuing to improve. We think what you see at Gulfstream is in its infancy of what you are going to see. We are trying to incorporate racing as an entertainment component so that people don’t just come to bet on horses.
“It is about the whole experience: having great dining, having some place cool to hang around if you are a young guy with a girlfriend, and a place to enjoy the thrill and excitement of a horse race.”
One of the main motivating factors for the second renovation in less than a decade is the desire to host the Breeders’ Cup World Championships again. Gulfstream has played host to North America’s end of season championship races three times in the past, but not once since it demolished its grandstand.
“We do want the Breeders’ Cup someday,” said Ritvo. “We need to do a lot of renovations, and we have plans for that. The reason you want to have the Breeders’ Cup is because it makes you a real viable and important player in the industry. The Breeders’ Cup is not a huge profit maker and it takes a lot of work, but it is an honor. It is the championship series of the sport, so who wouldn’t want to have it?”
Hosting events is important to Gulfstream. In 2013, it hosted the Eclipse Awards for the first time and will do so again in 2014. Eclipse Award night is the Oscars of horse racing in North America, and most everyone had positive feelings about having it at a race track instead of a hotel or convention center. Gulfstream is a track that is trying to bring in new people while taking care of the ones it already has.
“You go to most places and there is next to no marketing for horse racing,” said Eddie Plesa, Jr., who is a leading trainer in Florida. “But if you drive down any road in south Florida or turn on your radio or TV, you see or hear them advertising. They are promoting the sport.”
”You can train 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and you don’t have to worry.”
Beyond the track
Florida’s climate means that it is a favorite spot not only for racing but also for training racehorses, especially young ones.
Keenly aware of that fact, the Stronach Group opened up Palm Meadows. It is a state-of-the-art training facility located on 304-acres just outside Boynton Beach. Another major training facility is Payson Park, a 400-acre facility, also located in south Florida. It is designed to offer a stress-free environment for horses and trainers alike.
Both operations draw top trainers, and with top trainers come top horses. The reason is two fold: both operations are catering to the horse and both can offer the kind of weather that many facilities around the country dream of.
“When you are training horses in the snow and cold weather, it is a problem,” said Plesa. “The weather is the biggest draw as to why people go to Florida in the winter. You can train 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and you don’t have to worry.”
600 Thoroughbred farms
A couple hundred miles north, one finds Ocala, Florida, which bills itself as the Horse Capital of the World (although it has to share that title with four other cities around the world). Whether that claim is accurate or not, it sure is a popular place for horse enthusiasts. If you are looking to see all the effort that goes into getting a horse to the track, Ocala is the place to go.
In 1956, the Ocala area Thoroughbred industry received a boost when Needles became the first Florida-bred to win the Kentucky Derby, and in 1978, Florida bred and -raised Affirmed won the Triple Crown.
Today, Florida is home to around 600 Thoroughbred farms and training centers, and more than 75 percent of those are located near Ocala in Marion County. Ocala is also home to the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company, which stages major bloodstock auctions throughout the year.
Fasig-Tipton also holds sales in Florida, and in fact, it was at its 2006 January sale that the world record auction price of $16 million was set. The colt, later named The Green Monkey, would go on to win just $10,440, reminding everyone of the fact that racing is a sport that involves taking chances.
“Florida is the best place I know of for breaking horses, training horses, and teaching horses what they need to do,” said Plesa. “Time is of the essence, especially with 2-year-olds. When you take them out of a routine because you miss a week of training because of a snow storm, it might take you two weeks to get back to the point where you were. In Florida, you don’t have to worry about that.”
Ritvo, who has dedicated his life to improving the sport of horse racing, agreed, hitting on the fact that Florida has much to offer the equine enthusiast, be they in the industry or simply a fan.
“Obviously we can’t take credit for everything, since weather is a big factor,” he said. “But it is not just what the horses do here while they are wintering , it is what they do when they leave us that is important. We have more and more business coming our way every time they leave here from a good winter campaign.
“We are a huge state and we are known as a destination travel state and an agricultural state, but we would like to be known as a racing state. Some of the wealthiest people in the world have farms here, and it is important to us to continue to sell the sport. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes: the parties, the events, the beauty of it, and the love of the animals. Once people get in, you are hooked. There is no way you cannot fall in love with the sport.”
Or with Florida.
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