The Week in Review: At Gulfstream, a Big Day of Racing, a Bigger Day at the Windows

It was the day of the GI Florida Derby, plus six other stakes races. But to many at Gulfstream or to those at simulcast outlets or sitting in their living rooms riveted to their computer screens, Saturday’s 14th race was not the Florida Derby, but the last leg of the Rainbow 6.

That’s not a bad thing.

Great racing and big purses are important, but neither would be possible if people didn’t bet on the races, whether it’s a Grade I event or a $16,000 maiden claimer. It’s the bettors that drive this game. They are more important than the owners, the trainers, the jockeys, even the Grade I horses. That’s because without them, there is no game.

And no one is more in tune with that than Gulfstream’s operators, The Stronach Group. They drive people crazy when the horses go into the gate eight minutes after there are zero minutes on the post time clock. The bevy of cheap claiming races on the grass, the ones that always get full fields, are not for the purists. But it’s working.

The Florida Derby was a terrific event and the winner, Audible (Into Mischief), has a solid chance to become the 15th winner of the race to go on and win the Kentucky Derby. But I highly doubt the number 15 was even mentioned in the Gulfstream executive offices following the conclusion of Saturday’s races. The number that mattered the most was $49,909,070, Saturday’s total handle on the card. It was the largest handle in Gulfstream’s history for a non-Breeders’ Cup card.

The $49 million was the result of a perfect storm: a Florida Derby Day card plus a mandatory payout in the Rainbow 6. Nothing generates excitement among bettors quite like when the pool of a jackpot style bet grows and then must be paid out. There was $4.75 million in the carryover and another $16.5 million bet into the pool by bettors dreaming of a life-changing win at the windows. That didn’t happen, as the payoffs got chalky after the opening leg was won by a horse that paid $31.60. The payoff was $9,018, a big win for the small to medium players and a tough hit for the big syndicates that might have pumped tens of thousands into the pool hoping for a parade of long shot winners.

(Shameless plug: I gave out the winning Rainbow 6 on the Down the Stretch show on Sirius XM that I co-host with Dave Johnson. Did I play it myself? Of course not).

The $49 million handle figure represents a 63% increase over the 2017 Florida Derby Day card, which, obviously, has a lot to do with the Rainbow 6. It was also the second $40 million-plus handle day of the meet. This year’s card featuring the GI Pegasus World Cup handled $41,983,882, when there were 12 races as opposed to 14 Saturday.

Florida Derby Day 2018 is also poised to be the biggest wagering day in the country this year other than the three Triple Crown Days and the two Breeders’ Cup Days. The 2018 number narrowly bested the total handle for both the 2017 GI Travers S. and GI Kentucky Oaks cards.

They are still crunching the numbers for the 2018 championship meet, but so far we know that handle at Gulfstream was up 18.7% in January and 4.8% in February. If that were an industry-wide trend, The Stronach Group wouldn’t have that much to crow about. But it’s not. According to figures provided by The Stronach Group, through the end of February, nationwide handle at tracks not owned by Stronach was down 6.5%. Meanwhile, The Stronach Group tracks were up a combined 16.5%. With the haul Gulfstream took in on Florida Derby Day, the numbers should look even better after March is factored in.

It’s not just Gulfstream. Both of Stronach’s tracks in California are off to banner starts in 2018. Through February, handle at Santa Anita was up 28.7% and betting had increased 26.3% at Golden Gate.

That’s good news for the industry, as overall handle is up 3.4% through February. But the numbers also represent a shift. The Stronach tracks continue to increase their share of the total amount bet on horse racing and the money is not all new money. Much of it is coming from other tracks. This could grow into a bigger problem for those competing with The Stronach Group or it could serve as a motivational tool. If they can do it, you can, too. Just remember, the customer is king.

Never Too Early for Horse of the Year Talk

When Gun Runner (Candy Ride {Arg}) retired following his win in the GI Pegasus World Cup, it was generally assumed that the torch had been passed to West Coast (Flatter). Champion 3-year-old of 2017, the only thing standing between West Coast and superstar status had been Gun Runner, who defeated his rival in both the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Pegasus World Cup. Following the Pegasus, West Coast rose to the top of the polls and seemed on track for a Horse of the Year title. He still could be, but his defeat in Saturday’s G1 Dubai World Cup threw everything wide open. Is West Coast still the best U.S.-based horse in training? He very well could be, but that’s not necessarily a title you want to give to a horse who has lost three straight races. There are seven months to go until the Breeders’ Cup and a lot can happen. Who is number one? Right now, there isn’t one.

No Tease. He Might be a Good Stallion.

Even the most knowledgeable breeding afficionados probably haven’t heard of the stallion of Mr Stark (Lava Boy), who finished third in a maiden special weight race on the grass Friday at Gulfstream. That’s because Lava Boy isn’t exactly a stallion, at least in the traditional sense.

Lava Boy (Pulpit) is the teaser stallion at Arindel Farm in Florida. An unraced half-brother to Lava Man (Slew City Slew), he settled into his new duties at Arindel, where they figured they’d experiment and actually let him breed a mare.

“He is a good-looking horse and very well bred,” said farm manager Brian Cohen, who is the son of Arindel’s owner Alan Cohen. “We just thought we’d let him do this. We liked [Mr Stark] right from the beginning. I told [trainer] Stan [Gold] to run him in a maiden claimer first out because we couldn’t imagine anyone would claim him, but he thought so highly of the horse that he decided we better go in the maiden special.”

With Mr Stark running as well as he did, Cohen said Lava Boy will be bred again. Mr Stark is his only living foal.

Mr Stark still has some catching up to do if he is to become the best horse ever by a teaser stallion. That title belongs to Tiberian (Fr) (Tiberius Caesar {Fr}). Tiberius Caesar is a teaser at Haras du Logis and gets to cover one mare each year. Tiberian has won three group stakes and finished seventh in last year’s G1 Melbourne Cup.

Conquest The Conqueror

Ernie Semerksy might just have pulled the plug on his Conquest Stable a tad too early.

Semersky, who came and went like a comet, spent millions building a huge stable and, less than four years after he started, sold everything he had at the 2016 Keeneland November Sale. Semersky cited personal reasons for his getting out of the game.

Every horse he owned was named Conquest something or other, and more than a few have achieved considerable success since the sale. The latest is Conquest Big E (Tapit), who defeated a Kentucky Derby winner in Always Dreaming (Bodemeister) to capture the GII Gulfstream Park Hardacre Mile Saturday at Gulfstream. It was his first graded stakes win.

Conquest Big E was originally purchased by Semerksy for $700,000 at the 2014 Keeneland September sale, but went for just $110,000 when sold two years later. He was bought at Keeneland November for $110,000 by Tommy Roberts, who later sold the horse privately to Dan Hurtak and Dennis Punches last fall.

The win in the Gulfstream Mile was a bittersweet story as Punches didn’t live to see it happen.

“When [Punches] bought the horse he was 84 and had cancer,” trainer Donna Green said. “It was always his dream to own good stakes horses and it was still his dream. That’s why he was willing to buy this horse despite his age and his illness. He was not there in person Saturday, but we all know he was there in spirit.”

Green said Punches died just before last Christmas.

Conquest Big E was 12-1, but Green said she wasn’t the least bit surprised by the win.

“He’s very consistent and from the time we got him we knew he had ability,” she said. “He’s an extremely happy horse right now. When you put ability and mental happiness together, that’s the key to having a winning race horse.”