Horse Racing

David J. Neal: No contest: Gulfstream will win racing war against Calder in a KO

The second day in this era’s first weekend of head-to-head horse racing between Gulfstream and Calder recalled not Heat home game vs. Panthers home game or South Beach vs. Coconut Grove, but Aventura Mall vs. The Mall at 163rd Street.

Where do you want to go? A continually gussied up new mall with Nordstrom’s and Bloomingdales or a mall that lists Marshall’s and a Wal-Mart Supercenter as major tenants? Same here.

The decision is in, and it won’t be a decision. It’ll be a KO. Gulfstream’s all in. Calder just looks done in.

Gulfstream’s owner, Frank Stronach, is pouring money into the track and all around it. There’s a spiffy mall in front of the track. Two-floor stables are going up outside the track’s south turn. As I drove onto the Gulfstream property, I saw dorms for the grooms nice enough that I thought they were snowbird condos.

And Gulfstream’s giving bigger purses.

Calder has said exceptions to stable-here, race-here will be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Meanwhile, Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo said Sunday owners can stable their horses at Gulfstream and race elsewhere.

Calder wasn’t open on July 4. A national holiday with people off and looking for things to do with their family other than sunburn, and you’re not open? That’s not trying.

“Every time I leave [Calder], I feel like I have to take a shower,” said trainer Peter Walder, who had horses running in each track’s Sunday feature race.

Walder said the only reason he stayed for the summer is that Gulfstream remained open.

“I have a home here, but for the past 15 years, I’ve traveled to Monmouth Park in New Jersey or Delaware Park in Delaware because I refuse to stay at Calder,” he said. “I actually was supposed to stay there seven years ago, and my owners told me, ‘You can stay, but my horses are leaving.’ ”

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The criticisms of Calder’s backside, where horse folk do their stuff, don’t matter. Lower purses can be overcome. Gulfstream can tout that it’s in a safer area. Really, that doesn’t matter, either.

What matters for horse racing reclaiming some smidgen of space on the mainstream stage or on South Florida’s sports scene is how fans feel walking into each place and how fans feel walking out of it.

Even with some mall shops not open yet, Gulfstream Racing & Casino Park (note the order) before the first race flowed with anticipation Sunday. Kids crowded around to see the horses that would run in the first race. Call the architecture overdone, but it’s new.

Strolling through the race course part of Calder Casino & Race Course (again, note the order) depressed me. I have a soft spot for Calder. During my first summer at the Miami Herald, I covered Calder often enough that stewards began to associate me with feature races that ended with official inquiries. I was at Calder off and on over the next few years as the Neighbors Northwest/North Central reporter.

I wondered if any real improvements, outside of building the casino, had been made since those Kid ’n Play days. Once you moved past the dark poker area, dim lighting off walls of faded paint created an overcast effect inside on a sunny day. Rows of chairs inside facing TV banks and outside facing the track sat empty, as mocking as the empty glass office fronts inside.

The concession stands resembled those of old drive-ins. Great for a Saturday night with my wife and daughter in the car and nostalgically cheesy refreshment commercials on a giant screen in front of me. Just sad on a Sunday afternoon.

I could see going there to chill out, watch races and lay some bets if I didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t a place I’d want to bring my daughter. Not that it felt dangerous. It just didn’t feel fun. And it didn’t feel like anyone cared, ironic considering Calder is owned by Churchill Downs Incorporated, the company behind the sport’s highest-profile North American event.

That’s why Gulfstream will win this head-on clash.

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