Ever wondered what an upscale shopping mall would look like with a horse track attached to it? That’s Gulfstream Park.
While the South Florida oval technically dates back to 1939, the facility’s sole reliance upon Thoroughbred racing was obliterated in a 2006 renovation wherein owner Frank Stronach sunk $200 million into reimagining the grounds as a mixed-use playground, complete with a casino, restaurants, nightclubs, and high-end merchants.
A 110-foot statue of Pegasus crushing a dragon, a gaudy vision of Stronach’s, greets visitors at the track's entrance. An enormous slice of Vegas-like ostentatiousness, the winged horse was shipped in pieces from China and Germany, and carried a total price tag of $30 million. As one local realtor quipped to the Miami Herald, “Nothing says, ‘Welcome to Gulfstream Park’ better than a horse stomping on a lizard that was made in China.”
Due in part to the track’s role as just one of many reasons to visit the facility-at-large, fans familiar with the likes of Churchill Downs or Belmont Park will be taken aback by Gulfstream’s lack of traditional seating. Enclosed tables and suites aside, there’s basically as much outdoor fanny capacity near the walking ring as there is in the grandstand.
Yet Gulfstream isn’t designed to resemble other tracks. Rather, it represents Stronach’s vision for how American racetracks must reinvent themselves in order to compete in a crowded modern entertainment marketplace. Gulfstream doesn’t even charge admission; if some guy wants to pop in and play the Daily Double while his wife picks out a new throw rug across the walk at Pottery Barn, all the better.
It would be foolhardy, however, to surmise that Gulfstream’s “blend on in” nature means it doesn’t feature racing of the highest caliber. Due to its unfailingly balmy weather, no single track in America has the market cornered on an entire season like Gulfstream does on winter. As the rest of the country shovels snow off its stables, Gulfstream hosts top-notch stakes races every Saturday from December through March, with packed allowance and claiming fields to boot. A trio of graded stakes for 3-year-olds—the Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth, and Florida Derby - serve as key preps for Kentucky Derby hopefuls, while the innovative, $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational in January is the track's centerpiece for older horses.
Gulfstream’s grandstand is flanked by tiki bars, which ooze Florida. To the south is Frank’s Beach, which boasts a bar that’s as close to a Cheers-like atmosphere as one can find at a racetrack, dominated by Northeastern accents (there are weather-weary transplants aplenty in the Greater Miami area). And to the north is Stretch’s Tiki Area. The track apron offers"Breakfast at Gulfstream" every Saturday morning from 8 to 10:30 a.m., featuring a $10 breakfast buffet. Domestic drafts can be had for a song on most weekends (overheard near the beer cart: “I made a $2 bet in Miller Lite and won”), and the Ocean Breeze—a refreshing combination of blood-orange vodka, pineapple juice, cranberry juice, and lime juice—is the track’s signature cocktail.
Where to Eat, Drink and Sleep
Hallandale Beach Boulevard is essentially the dividing line between posh, Miami-esque South Florida and an area that ranges from charmingly tacky to downright sleazy. Gulfstream sits on the former side of this dividing line, while several miles to the north is Ft. Lauderdale’s notorious Bimini Bay Bar, which eschews sports and other televised options in favor of nonstop pornography. It’s not exactly the ideal spot for a first date, unless it’s predetermined that the first will be the last as well.
In between, on U.S. 1 - a coastal highway that spans the entirety of Florida’s eastern shore, all the way through the Keys - there are a slew of clean, affordable motels which harken back to an earlier era.
Richard’s Motel and the Curtis Inn are two such options within walking distance of the track. In Hollywood - which has no trouble avoiding confusion with its more famous California namesake - is Jack’s Hollywood Diner, which started slinging hash out of a single, silver dining car in 1953, back when it was known as Freddie’s Diner. Since it became Jack’s additional seating capacity has been tacked on, but the hours - 24/7 - remain the same.
A late-night trip to Jack’s might well be preceded by several stiff whiskey-and-sodas at Artie’s Sportsmen’s Lounge. Upon walking into this smoky dive, you’re likely to be greeted by a triple-shot of Tom Petty (Florida’s greatest export, citrus be damned) on the jukebox, accompanied by a regular who’s nonchalantly plugged in his electric guitar near the middle of the dance floor. If you’re not grooving along to the music, you’ll be bellied up to one of the establishment’s two full bars, because that’s about the only seating there is. And don’t expect a quaint experience: One recent Saturday, a well-lubricated regular yelled “yeah!” roughly once every 30 seconds for three hours.
Closer to the track, where Hallandale Beach Boulevard and U.S. 1 intersect, is a popular package store/restaurant called Flanigan’s, which is part of a local chain. Although it sounds like an Irish pub, Flanigan’s is actually the sort of beachy bar you’d expect to find in Florida, with surfboards and various other nautical decor covering its woody walls, and prime rib and seafood among the culinary highlights.
At the track, Christine Lee’s and Ten Palms are the main upscale dining options; on the former restaurant’s walls are photos of the proprietor with celebrities like Matt Damon, John Travolta, and super-chef Bobby Flay (also a Thoroughbred owner whose horses race frequently at Gulfstream). Speaking of eponymous establishments, Frankey’s Sports Bar—named for Stronach—in the Village serves excellent burgers in an atmosphere that’s reminiscent of a Vegas sports book, complete with waitresses who will take your wagers through portable tote machines.
Todd Pletcher is one of America’s best trainers, period. But at Gulfstream Park, his dominance is even more pronounced, as Pletcher has won 14 consecutive training titles dating back to 2004. But Gulfstream is such a competitive affair that a veritable who’s who of East Coast and Kentucky horsemen are likely to be in the mix on any given day, among them Javier Castellano, John Velazquez, Joel Rosario, Bill Mott, and Chad Brown.
While Gulfstream offers a plethora of exotic wagers to thrill-seeking bettors, perhaps its best-known is the Rainbow 6, described by Daily Racing Form columnist Andrew Beyer as “a devilish mutant of the conventional pick six.” Here, a mere 20 cents is required for a shot at a payout of over $1 million. The catch: The winning horseplayer must successfully pick winners in eachof the day’s final six races—and be the only person to have done so—in order to claim the full jackpot.
For visitors looking to save money on transportation, Broward County’s No. 1 bus will take you straight down U.S. 1 from Ft. Lauderdale International Airport to the track and all points in between. This knowledge becomes especially valuable once you realize that the region’s cabbies drive as though it’s perpetually their first day in town; if you have a destination in mind, just stating the business’ name won’t suffice.
In the event that betting on shorter-legged animals after the dealing’s done at Gulfstream sounds appealing, about a mile-and-a-half down U.S. 1 is The Racetrack at Mardi Gras Casino—formerly the Hollywood Greyhound Track—which features a late slate of races that begins at 7:30 p.m. And if it’s a musical nightcap you desire, Ft. Lauderdale’s ornate Parker Playhouse regularly hosts folk heroes like Lucinda Williams, Gordon Lightfoot and Judy Collins.