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Jun 18th
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Written by Terence Cantarella, Photos by Silvia Ros   
April 2014

There are still three horse tracks in South Florida, but Gulfstream has left them in the dust

OCoverLeadn a Saturday in February, a three-year-old horse named General a Rod takes his place on the racetrack at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach. Betting odds project him to finish third, behind two strapping Kentucky thoroughbreds named Commissioner and Top Billing.

Blue skies and an ocean breeze favor the near-capacity crowd, which has come to watch the day’s 12 races. Each race offers a purse, ranging from $34,500 to $200,000, to the winning horse’s team.

But the race that General a Rod is about to run, the 11th, is the most important. It’s the day’s feature race, the Fountain of Youth Stakes. The purse is $400,000. The winner will be nominated to run in Gulfstream’s million-dollar Florida Derby on March 29, which could then earn the winning horse a spot in the $2 million Kentucky Derby.

Despite General a Rod’s lower odds, he’s clearly the horse to watch. Not because of his seemingly cool confidence or decent record, but because of the Venezuelan on his back.

From the grandstand crowd to the throng of rowdy spectators pressed against the rail, the name Javier Castellano is on everyone’s lips.

Castellano, one of the world’s leading jockeys, has already won six of the day’s races, pulling in more than half a million dollars in purse money. One more win will tie him with the Gulfstream Park record for single-day wins, set in 1995.

The starting bell clangs, and 12 horses burst out of the gate. The crowd erupts, many cheering Castellano’s name, punctuated with shouts of “Ride ’em, Daddy!” “¡Da le!” and “C’mon, baby!” He quickly moves to the front of the pack alongside a horse named Wildcat Red that’s seeking revenge for a New Year’s Day loss to him.

Earlier in the day, a Jamaican spectator had suffered a public meltdown after betting on a horse that lost to Castellano. He’d grabbed his head, sunk to his knees, and bellowed, “Castellano!” along with a string of patois curses. Now he’s goading the jockey on: “Go on, Castellano! G’wan!”

This is horse racing at its finest: high-stakes, dramatic, emotional.

Similar scenes have played out at South Florida’s three racetracks for decades. Gulfstream Park, Hialeah Park, and Calder Race Course have hosted some of the world’s best races and racing champions. The road to the Kentucky Derby, it is said, runs through Florida. In fact, 22 winners of that race got there by triumphing in South Florida first.

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A Deloitte study for the American Horse Council Foundation in 2005 concluded that there were 500,000 horses in Florida, more than 60 percent of them involved in showing and recreation. The horse industry has a $5.1 billion economic impact on the state’s economy -- second only to its impacts in California and Texas -- and almost half of that figure comes from racing; 440,000 Floridians are involved in the horse industry, either through ownership, providing services, as employees, and volunteers.

Nonetheless, horse racing is in crisis, according to a 2011 study commissioned by the Jockey Club, the nation’s most powerful racing-industry group. Nationwide, track attendance had dropped 30 percent since 2001, and betting fell 37 percent. The study predicted that the sport could lose about four percent of its attendance each year until, by 2020, it would have only 64 percent of what it had in 2010. Across the country, racetracks have shuttered, been sold to developers, and replaced by housing developments and shopping malls.

But Gulfstream Park, the top South Florida track, is different. While not unaffected by downward trends in attendance, state records show that the past two fiscal years saw an average 13 percent rise in the amount of money wagered at the track, a $7.2 million increase. A record 20,382 people turned out to watch last year’s Florida Derby, surpassing a record set the previous year. And total wagering that day reached nearly $25 million, just slightly short of the record. On a typical weekend, the track bustles with fans of all ages, both genders, and many ethnicities.

Instead of scaling back on horse racing, Gulfstream is expanding it. The company built 380 new horse stalls last year and is planning to add thousands of new seats in a bid to host the Breeders’ Cup (the track previously hosted the prestigious race in 1989, 1992, and 1999). Also last year, Gulfstream applied for and won approval to host year-round racing.

The moves constitute the latest in Gulfstream’s decades-long battle with Hialeah and Calder -- a battle that has left the former on life support and the latter with a diminishing product, even though regulators approved its own application for year-round racing at the same time as Gulfstream’s. This battle has been no less high-stakes, dramatic, or emotional.

Now, it seems, Gulfstream is looking beyond its local rivals as industry insiders and supporters lobby state officials to allow the park to form an unconventional, and controversial, alliance with one of the world’s biggest resort casino companies. Whether its efforts will benefit local racing or diminish the sport further is an uncertain wager.


BCover_3efore basketball, baseball, and football…before tennis, soccer, and golf…there was horse racing.

The Greeks built their hippodromes, the Romans had their circuses, and early evidence of mounted horse and/or chariot races has been found from the ancient Near East to China. The English began perfecting the sport after the Middle Ages and eventually brought it to the New World.

South Florida got its first horse track in 1925, when a couple of moneyed visionaries opened Hialeah Park on a snake-infested stretch of land along what was then the eastern edge of the Everglades. The facilities were rebuilt in the 1930s under a new owner and came to be known as “the world’s most beautiful race course.” Renaissance Revival architecture, winding staircases, stone archways draped in bougainvillea, ornate fountains, and a resident flock of pink flamingos in the infield lake created an atmosphere of tropical regency that still inspires awe.

A second, less opulent track, Tropical Park Race Track, opened in 1931 at the current intersection of Bird Road and the Palmetto Expressway, and hosted Dade County’s first legal race wagering. Prior to 1931, betting on horses was a crime; Hialeah had pulled it off by bribing cops and city officials.

Following the swamp-to-swank script of early South Florida development, Jack Horning, the 28-year-old scion of a Pittsburgh steel family, opened Gulfstream in 1939. He built it for about $1.4 million on a 300-acre slice of wetland straddling the current Dade-Broward county border, just east of Biscayne Boulevard. Most of the property would eventually become a part of the future Hallandale Beach.

Horning’s track stayed open only a few days. According to a 1939 editorial in the St. Petersburg Independent, opening day “brought out a crowd of 14,000 that wagered $224,287.” But the next afternoon, attendance was down to 3500, with wagers totaling only $66,000. On Day Three, a Saturday no less, attendance came in at just 3600 and $82,000 in wagers. Gulfstream couldn’t compete with Hialeah or Tropical Park.

According to an account by historian Seth Bramson in his book Hallandale Beach, Florida, Horning was unable to lure fans away from the other tracks and quickly ran out of operating cash. The facility reopened in 1944, when one of the track’s creditors, James Donn Sr., a Scottish florist originally hired to do the park’s landscaping, took ownership and began working to reestablish it.

Cover_4This time around, however, the tracks didn’t want head-to-head competition. Nor did the state, since overlapping race days would dilute the massive tax revenues each track could produce without the competition. So in 1947, legislators passed a bill dividing the racing season in three 40-day segments -- early, middle, and late. The middle dates, from January to mid-March were the most coveted because of the influx of tourists to the area. The state awarded those dates to the track with the most income the previous year. That was always Hialeah, since it started with those lucrative dates to begin with.

“There wasn’t really any way to flip a coin and resolve these disputes other than the state regulating dates with an agency or commission,” says Miami historian Paul George.

Finally, in the early 1970s, Gulfstream fought to change the law, arguing that it could financially outperform Hialeah if awarded those middle dates. And so it could. By then, the tourist and population centers of Dade County had shifted east, closer to Gulfstream. The neighborhood of Hialeah had fallen on hard times and people no longer wanted to make the trek west, especially since the FEC passenger trains that once dropped fans on Hialeah Park’s doorstep had stopped running.

After suits and countersuits, the Supreme Court of Florida gave Gulfstream a crack at the coveted middle dates in alternate years.

In 1972, 3M Company chairman William McNight, who’d recently taken over ownership of Tropical Park, closed it down. According to a Miami News story in late 1971: “It is common knowledge that [McNight] plans to close down Tropical and switch the dates to the new Calder Race Course, in which he is the principal investor.” Calder Race Course, which had opened in 1971, was built in present-day Miami Gardens, just nine miles west of Gulfstream. Steven Calder, who built the track, had a novel idea: offer summertime racing.

His facility featured a glass-enclosed, air-conditioned grandstand and a synthetic track (manufactured by McNight’s 3M Company) designed to handle torrential summer rain without becoming dangerously muddy. He obtained the rights to operate from May to early January, the period when the other two tracks were closed.

Hialeah and Gulfstream were left to battle over the winter schedule, pleading with the legislature each year for the more desirable middle dates. Lawmakers eventually grew tired of the rancorous, often litigious feuding and, in 1989, deregulated racing dates altogether, telling the tracks that the government would no longer involve itself in their scheduling disputes.

Cover_5But the two tracks couldn’t reach agreement. Instead, Hialeah tried to compete by running overlapping dates, with results that boomeranged against it. The track was forced to close twice during the ensuing 11 years owing to financial hardship, and has still not regained its footing.

The in-fighting coincided with a steep decline in track attendance nationwide. What was once the most attended sport in North America had lost much of its fan base. Gulfstream, even while enjoying its new status as South Florida’s most popular track, saw attendance fall 23 percent from 1985 to 1990, according to a 1991 New York Times report.

The problem? Apparently, a love of horses and racing wasn’t the sport’s main appeal. The draw was the chance to win money. But newer forms of legalized gambling were siphoning off those bettors. These included the Florida Lottery, introduced in 1988; offshore gambling boats (those “cruises to nowhere”); and most important, the emergence of Indian-run bingo halls, which would later become casinos. Other factors, such as home VCRs, the growth of cable TV, and new sports franchises, are presumed to have dealt additional blows.

As a result, the tracks lobbied for changes they believed would reinvigorate the sport. And state legislators, seeing the potential for greater tax revenue, began parceling out benefits. Among them: allowing minors to attend races (but not bet on them), and Sunday racing, which was previously banned. Neither change, however, produced a large enough bump in attendance to offset prior losses.

What did reinvigorate the industry was technology. In 1990, Florida tracks gained the right to broadcast their races to other tracks where patrons could watch on closed-circuit TVs and bet remotely. Broadcasting between Florida tracks is called inter-track wagering (or ITW, the wagering on one track’s live races at another track). Broadcasting between out-of-state tracks is known as simulcasting. (The two terms are often used interchangeably, but incorrectly.)

“Without ITW, Gulfstream would have faced its lowest opening-day on-track [wagering] in several years,” the Miami Herald reported in 1992. Instead, Gulfstream broke a record.

But therein lay a dilemma. The technology that increased wagering activity also cut attendance rates since there was no longer a need to sit in the grandstand. Without a live audience, the energy and enthusiasm for the sport would evaporate and new fans would be hard to find.

“Live racing is important,” said Frank Stronach, Gulfstream’s chairman, in a Herald interview 14 years ago. “If there’s no spectators, football wouldn’t be exciting, would it?”

Gulfstream employed other tactics to entice people to the track: free admission and parking, improved food services, concerts, fairs, and new advertising campaigns. In 1996, legislators agreed to let racetracks offer low-stakes poker games (with $10 pots). But race attendance rates remained flat.

Cover_6ITW and simulcasting numbers, meanwhile, rose by nearly $6 billion nationwide between 1988 and 1999. Off-track betting parlors, which were legalized in New York in 1970, and in other states during the 1980s and 1990s, also contributed to wagering increases (OTB remains illegal in Florida). In the early 2000s, online betting began making an impact, too.

That jump in revenue attracted the attention of major gaming corporations, which previously saw little value in horse tracks other than for real estate development.

After changing hands twice in the 1990s, Gulfstream was purchased for $95 million in 1999 by the Stronach Group (formerly Magna Entertainment Corp.) The privately held company, which owns four other U.S. racetracks and supplies pari-mutuel wagering technology, is headed by its founder, Austrian-Canadian businessman, politician, horse breeder, and billionaire Frank Stronach.

Two years earlier, Calder had been acquired by a large corporation, too. Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI), one of the biggest names in horse racing, bought the track for $86 million. CDI now owns four tracks, including its namesake Churchill Downs Race Track, where the Kentucky Derby is held.

But while ITW, simulcasting, and OTB kept the accounting books in the black, the corporate focus on the bottom line demanded additional revenue streams. Thus began the war between goliaths.

In 2002, Gulfstream’s parent company began construction on The Village at Gulfstream Park, a $245 million mixed-use shopping, dining, office, and entertainment project adjacent to the track. The 65-year-old grandstand was demolished two years later and replaced with a grandstand/clubhouse hybrid that, tellingly, provided only about a quarter of the previous seating capacity -- reflecting the new reality that Gulfstream would have to leverage its prominent location to lure visitors with other attractions.

More important, though, lobbyists for both tracks began pushing for the state legislature to legalize slot machines at their facilities. Several other states had already legalized slots at racetracks by the early 2000s. And since, legally, a percentage of slots revenue has to be put toward racing purses, it was argued that out-of-state “racinos” (tracks with casinos) were drawing the top horses, trainers, and jockeys away from South Florida with the promise of more prize money.

Despite fierce opposition from anti-gambling groups -- and the fact that casino gambling proposals were rejected by voters three times between 1978 and 1999 -- the tracks’ advocates collected signatures and petitioned the Florida Supreme Court for the right to put the issue to a referendum, and in 2005 they got their wish. Broward voters approved slot machines at pari-mutuels (horse tracks, dog tracks, and jai alai frontóns). Miami-Dade voters approved them three years later.

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According to annual reports by the Florida Department of Business Regulation, Gulfstream’s slots generated a net revenue of almost $31 million during the first fiscal year after their introduction. That number reached $54 million five years later, before dropping back to $48 million during fiscal year ending June 30, 2013. Altogether, South Florida’s six pari-mutuels generated $436 million in slot machine revenue during the same fiscal year.

The legislature, which mandated a 50 percent tax rate on slot revenues, was obligated to channel the money into education funding. The state also collected a $3 million annual fee for the slots license. Miami-Dade and Broward counties gained 8800 casino-related jobs between 2006 and 2010, according to a Miami Herald analysis. Horsemen (owners, breeders, trainers, and jockeys), meanwhile, forged an agreement with Gulfstream that channeled a minimum of 7.5 percent of slot revenue into racing purses.

The pari-mutuels used the promise of more jobs and greater tax revenue to persuade the legislature to lift some of the restrictions initially placed on the new racinos. In 2007, they were granted longer operating hours, more slot machines (raising the legal limit from 1500 to 2000), and no-limit poker tables (abolishing the $10 cap). Two years later, the 50 percent tax rate on slots was lowered to 35 percent, a concession to help the pari-mutuels compete with popular Indian-run casinos that don’t pay taxes.

Despite the gold rush, horsemen soon came to view slots as a double-edged sword. The machines raised funds for prize money, but the partnerships they once had with track owners began to erode. The corporate owners, they began to complain, were much more interested in building the casinos than they were in horse racing.

Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, says that’s exactly what happened at Calder Race Course once its slots and poker casino opened in 2010. “Everything was fine,” he said, “until Churchill Downs decided around 2010 that they didn’t really care about racing except for two days in May, which would be the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby [two of the nation’s biggest races]. They mainly want to be a gaming company -- poker, slots, Internet betting, whatever. They don’t really care about racing. They made it very clear, from Bob Evans, who’s the chairman, right on down.”

Stirling’s statements were buoyed by a May 2013 New York Times report noting that “Churchill Downs has transformed itself into a full-blown gambling company with interests in casinos and Internet sites. While financial analysts have applauded the shift -- its stock has risen 51 percent in the past five years -- the horse racing world feels abandoned by Churchill Downs.”

A visit to Calder illustrates that shift.


UCover_8nlike Gulfstream’s owner, Churchill Downs Inc. has undertaken no major renovations to the Calder grandstand and its attached facilities. In fact, the building’s general shabbiness, its linoleum floors, drop-panel ceilings, and institutional lighting suggest it hasn’t received an update in the past few

The crowd is also noticeably older and less upscale than Gulfstream’s. More telling, the sign on the side of the grandstand identifies it as Calder Casino, not Calder Race Course. The four-year-old casino, though, is in a separate, well-kept building next door, with its own casino sign.

Behind the scenes, Stirling says, things aren’t much better: “If you saw what they consider dorms [where jockeys and trainers stay during meets], you wouldn’t want to pay anything for it. They say, ‘Well, Gulfstream charges.’ But that’s like a palace charging versus a rundown tenement house. You’ve got a ten-by-ten concrete block, and a bathroom for every five rooms.”

A Calder spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time. But problems, apparently, aren’t limited to the Miami Gardens venue. Last month a Times-Picayune article labeled Churchill Downs Inc. “an absentee landlord” owing to deteriorating track conditions at the New Orleans Fair Grounds, another of its racinos. That facility received slot machines in 2007.

Stirling says that Calder’s “mistreatment of horsemen” created the groundwork for Gulfstream’s next battle maneuvers against it.

For 20 years, since shortly after the deregulation of racing calendars back in 1989, Gulfstream had traditionally operated during the most lucrative months, from early January through late April, and left the rest of the year to Calder. The schedule was a longstanding gentleman’s agreement to prevent the two tracks from competing for a limited fan base and quality horses.

But last year Gulfstream, after the year-round permit was granted, extended its schedule by five months into the summer, overlapping Calder’s schedule. And to fill those months with quality races, Gulfstream began to poach Calder’s horsemen.

“Gulfstream started saying, ‘Well, if we’re going to run year-round, we need the Calder horsemen, and what better time to go after them than now, when they’re furious with Calder management,’” Stirling explains. “And there was another enticement. Gulfstream gave them a $500 bonus every time they ran. So a lot of the big outfits from Calder came over to Gulfstream during the summer, and Gulfstream beat them pretty badly. If you look at the handle [the amount of money wagered], they outdid them three to one.”

Cover_9With both Calder and Gulfstream operating year-round races, including competing weekend races, it’s a sure bet that a winner will emerge. Hialeah Park, completely out of the picture, now only holds quarter-horse races. John Brunetti, Hialeah’s owner, has publicly said that he’d like to race thoroughbreds again, but not if he has to compete against Gulfstream and Calder. (In racing circles, quarter horses have less cachet than thoroughbreds.)

Last year’s head-to-head between Gulfstream and Calder has already taken a toll on the latter. Calder’s revenues fell by $28.3 million in 2013, according to annual reports the corporation released this past February. On a recent Saturday, Calder was offering lower-grade races with fewer horses per race than Gulfstream. Attendance was also sparse. Adding insult to injury, Calder lost of one of its most famous events to Gulfstream this year -- a popular summer series of six races for two-year-old horses that Calder hosted for the past 32 years.

Gulfstream representatives have said that the shift to year-round racing was an effort to buoy the company’s adjacent shopping, dining, and entertainment village, which has struggled financially. When a racing day ends, many fans drift over to The Village’s restaurants and bars, creating spillover business.

Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo couldn’t be reached for comment by press time. But in 2012, he told the Herald: “You don’t purchase a village and build like we’re going to build to run four months out of the year.” Year-round racing, he said, is “an important part of keeping the entire facility as a year-round facility.”

Current plans call for Gulfstream to become a full-scale destination resort. Construction is set to begin this month on two trackside hotels, 500 condominium units, a new casino building, a concert hall, movie theater, and an amusement-style park that will feature a $30 million, 120-foot-tall bronze-and-steel statue of the winged horse Pegasus. Total construction costs have been estimated at half a billion dollars.

And while racing fans will likely frequent Gulfstream’s new businesses, the hope is that some of the village and park customers will be drawn to the horse track as well.

Many observers believe that Calder, meanwhile, would like to get out of the racing business altogether in Florida. Legally, however, the Miami Gardens track must maintain 80 days of racing per year in order to keep its casino slots permit. The law also stipulates that it must offer live racing if it wants to maintain its lucrative ITW and simulcast services.

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Those requirements could one day be abolished, however, in a move to decouple casinos, ITW, and simulcasting from racing entirely. A bill currently working its way through the Florida Senate aims to do that for greyhound tracks.

In mid-March, Phil Combest, president of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association wrote an opinion piece in the Sun-Sentinel against the “decoupling” bill, warning that while the current bill addresses dog tracks only, it will open the door for action in other racing areas. “But why would pari-mutuel owners want to decouple?” he wrote. “Simple. It costs a lot more to run a racetrack than a casino. For big corporate casino ownership, it’s much cheaper just to operate slot machines and rake in the profits.” Combest predicted a “dramatic shrinkage of available horse racing days, purses, and racetracks themselves.”

If that scenario plays out, it could transform Gulfstream’s dominance into a full-blown monopoly as it builds its resort attractions.

“The Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream, will eventually control and offer the only thoroughbred racing in South Florida,” predicts William Hutchinson and Baird Thompson, a South Florida-based consulting duo who specialize in the gaming industry.

What would that mean for the sport? “It’s never good when you have a monopoly, but in this case you have a guy who actually cares about racing,” Kent Stirling says of the Stronach Group’s chairman, Frank Stronach. “I mean Stronach is the biggest breeder in the industry. He probably has more horses than anybody. He really cares about racing, so at least you’ve got somebody you can talk to who understands racing. At Churchill Downs, they don’t understand racing at all.”

Lonny Powell, CEO of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association, says, “We’d like to see a viable Calder remain. We never took sides in this dates war. But once they did start overlapping, it became very clear that the betting customers and the horsemen preferred Gulfstream. It’s probably one of the top five brands in the racing business, in terms of quality, competitive racing, gaining national players, and being engaged in the Florida racing scene. So Gulfstream, being the dominant track like it is, I think our industry could absolutely adjust to that.”

Racing advocates insist that legislators must come up with even more concessions if local racing is to flourish.

For example, nighttime thoroughbred racing is illegal in Florida. The restriction was implemented decades ago to give greyhound tracks an exclusive time slot that wouldn’t compete with the more popular horses. After-dark horse races, advocates say, would attract crowds looking for nighttime entertainment, as well as fans who simply don’t have time for the track during the day.

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Gulfstream’s former longtime president, Doug Donn (whose grandfather had purchased and reopened the track after its disastrous initial four-day run), told the Herald in 2002 that nighttime racing is important. But today, Gulfstream’s vice president of racing, P.J. Campo, sounds uncertain about its prospects. “It has to go through legislation,” he tells the BT. “I think it would be a great addition, but I don’t know if that’s anywhere in the near future.”

Advocates are also pushing for the legalization of off-track betting. Unlike ITW and simulcasting, OTB allows non-track facilities to show live races and accept wagers. Instead of the traditional stand-alone parlors that were popular in some states in recent decades, OTB could be redefined to allow race wagering in sports bars and other entertainment venues. “Obviously, we’d like people to come to Gulfstream,” Campo says. “But when you have off-site wagering facilities, we get a part of that as well.”

More controversial is Gulfstream’s partnership with Resorts World Miami, a division of Malaysia-based Genting Group, which owns a huge swath of prime downtown Miami real estate where it hopes to build a casino resort. The two entities have proposed an arrangement that would allow Genting to use a permit Gulfstream holds so it can set up 2000 slot machines near the old Miami Herald building. In exchange, Genting would channel a portion of gambling revenues to a nonprofit that funds racing prizes and care programs for retired racehorses and disabled jockeys.

Opponents allege the partnership is a roundabout way for Genting to build a casino in Miami. State regulators shot down the proposal last month, but Genting and Gulfstream are lobbying the legislature to redefine the law and allow it. (For more information, see “Here’s a Clever Way to Bring Slots to Miami,” by Erik Bojnansky, this issue.)

Another goal that industry insiders are targeting? A commission, a central governing agency that would, they say, provide marketing and infrastructure, and could establish rules related to scheduling. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) was formed in 1998 to fulfill such a role, but it is argued that it has become a relatively powerless figurehead organization.

The battle between Gulfstream and Calder, meanwhile, is like no other.

“You know, people say New York racing is screwed up. California racing is a joke. But nobody can compare with Florida,” says horseman Kent Stirling. “We can screw up anything better than anybody else. We’re number one. It’s beyond belief what goes on in Florida. It’s a real mess. Unfortunately, the horsemen are stuck in the middle. There’s nothing we can do. We basically bring the actors. The tracks bring the stage. And we’re trying to split between two stages, and of course, the better actors are going to go to the fancy stage and the decrepit stage is going to get what’s left over.”


BCoverStory_12ack at Gulfstream, General a Rod comes tearing around the track, nostrils flaring, a blur of hooves kicking up dust. He’s at the front of the pack, noses apart from Wildcat Red. The two colts have been locked in battle almost since leaving the starting gate.

The crowd is electrified. A woman puts her hand to her temple: “Oh, this hurts my head!”

“Go! Go! Go!” come the shouts.

The drumbeat of hooves is deafening. Javier Castellano leans deeper into General a Rod’s cropped mane as Wildcat Red and his jockey dig in beside him.

Cheers along the rail crescendo as the two horses approach, then cross the finish line together, sending the crowd into hysterics.

“Who was it?!”... “Who won?!”... “Tell me Castellano took it!”

It’s a photo finish. Several nervous moments later, the results come in. Wildcat Red has beaten General a Rod by a bob -- meaning that when he bobbed his head, his nose crossed the line first.

Curses pepper a new round of cheering.

Castellano has missed tying Gulfstream’s record for same-day wins by just one race, literally by a nose.

No matter, General a Rod’s valiant performance has earned him a spot alongside Wildcat Red in the $1 million Florida Derby.

Five weeks later, on March 29, the two colts are barreling down the stretch once again, hurtling toward the finish line, trying to clench that Derby win. Both have different jockeys this time. Castellano is there, too, but on a horse named Constitution.

As the two nemeses fight to outrun each other, Castellano suddenly bounds up from third position and moves in alongside them in the final seconds. The announcer thunders. The crowd roars. Castellano crosses the finish line first, just in front of Wildcat Red.

Here comes the name again from every direction. “Castellano! Castellano! Castellano!” It’s his fifth win of the day.

In May, Constitution and Wildcat Red will both run for fame and glory -- and $2 million -- in the Kentucky Derby.

Along the rail, the winning bettors celebrate, and losers sulk. Either way, emotion animates every face.

What a race.

What a day.

What a sport.

 

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