Another American racetrack has closed its doors for good. Gulfstream Park West, formerly known as Calder Race Course, ran its final race Saturday. How we got here is, regarding the industry at large, quite instructive.
Calder opened on May 6, 1971, to a capacity crowd of over 16,000. Over the years, those crowds, like the ones at the vast majority of U.S. tracks, waned. In 1999, Churchill Downs Inc. purchased Calder; in 2010, Churchill introduced casino gaming, making the track a racino (which, as we know, is designed to subsidize the horseracing). As part of its (casino) licensing, Churchill was required to run at least 40 days of racing. But as the years passed, Churchill (as it has at many of its other properties) grew less and less interested in racing. The money, after all, was in the slots, and for Churchill, a publicly traded company, profits are all that matter.
So, in 2014, Churchill leased Calder to the Stronach Group, owner of nearby Gulfstream Park, and the track was rechristened Gulfstream West. In a move that underscored how little Churchill cared about the horseracing there, in 2015 the grandstand was razed – i.e., no fans allowed. Still, it appeared that Churchill was stuck with this arrangement. Until, that is, the company found a loophole in state law.
In order to maintain its gaming license, Churchill had to offer parimutuel gambling, with the most prominent form being, of course, horseracing. But, it turns out, jai alai would do, and Churchill went about building a fronton (a jai alai arena) in the hope of supplanting horseracing. Eventually, Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation (and various state courts) decided jai alai would indeed suffice, rendering racing unnecessary. And so here we are. While true that Gulfstream will absorb some of the Calder dates, not all will be made up. In the big picture, another racetrack has been shuttered. (Florida will be left with but two Thoroughbred tracks, Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs.) And that’s progress.
Truth is, Churchill is not alone: There are many track owners across this land who would be more than happy to rid themselves of costly, dirty, and, increasingly, embarrassing (negative coverage, dead horses) horseracing. But they can’t and still retain their gaming licenses. That’s because the “horsemen” lobby is strong and have the politicos’ ears. Recently, though, that has begun to change (see Governor Wolf in Pennsylvania). Would that that trend continues and this corporate welfare propping up a cruel, declining industry gets redirected where it belongs – education, infrastructure, property-tax relief, etc. For now, we savor another victory.