Javier Castellano’s first win as an apprentice jockey after he came to the United States was on a 90-degree day at Calder on July 31, 1997.
So he has an understandable affinity for summertime racing in South Florida.
That’s one of the reasons why he stood inside the air-conditioned jockey room at Gulfstream Park on Monday afternoon, wiping away the sweat that was dripping from underneath his helmet, and did so with no complaints. Gulfstream’s first summer meet is underway, the latest new chapter for the facility that thinks it can improve the quality of racing by giving both horsemen and horseplayers more of what they want.
”Summer racing is something that hasn’t been done in 75 years at Gulfstream,” said Tim Ritvo, the track’s president and general manager. ”We expect to start off slow and try to market it and build a program. This is a longterm commitment. We’ve built a $1 billion facility to try to generate new growth in the industry, everything to try to reinvigorate the thoroughbred racing industry in cooperation with our entertainment complex.”
The meet at Gulfstream — normally a winter-months racing destination — will primarily continue on weekends through the start of the traditional meet on Dec. 1. A racing card for July 4 is also planned, as are ones for Labor Day and Veterans Day.
It’s not going to have the lure of Saratoga or Del Mar, and those at Gulfstream aren’t thinking otherwise, either. Nonetheless, Monday’s eight-race card went off with plenty of fans in the stands, even though no race carried a purse of more than $35,000.
”We’re not going to fool ourselves and pretend to compete against Saratoga or Del Mar. Those are iconic racing sites and meets,” Ritvo said. ”We just think we can do a better job of summertime racing than what’s been done. So we’re hoping to invigorate summertime in Florida.”
The competition at this meet won’t just be among horses.
Calder, located just a few miles away from Gulfstream in Miami Gardens, Fla., also runs during the summer, so the two tracks will go head-to-head by offering live racing cards simultaneously for the first time starting Saturday and continuing on weekends for the foreseeable future. Calder officials said last week that horsemen who ship horses from its track to compete elsewhere in Florida run the risk of losing their stall space there. One day later, Gulfstream announced that it was opening its training center at Palm Meadows and offering other incentives for racing at its facility.
The tracks have been at odds for some time over racing schedules. Time will tell how this move by Gulfstream spices the rivalry and affects Florida racing.
”It’s stretches the business a little bit more, but when you have quality racing, that’s what people want,” jockey John Velazquez said. ”That’s the most important thing, quality racing, good for the fans and the bettors as well. Makes it fun for everyone.”
Gulfstream has a casino and scores of shops and dining options, plus just did a $1 million renovation of its track drainage system. The next project is ongoing, a $10 million plan to add a double-decker horse barn that would expand the facility’s stalls from 1,100 to 1,600.
”I honestly believe we’re in the infancy of what you’re going to see in this facility,” Ritvo said.
The first race of Gulfstream’s meet went off with an air temperature of 89 degrees, and South Florida’s omnipresent humidity made it feel a few degrees warmer.
Castellano is used to conditions like those by now, yet still was soaked after his first race on Monday.
”This is good for the sport,” Castellano said. ”It promotes the game and Gulfstream’s being really good to us. You don’t see too many tracks doing what they do … they put a lot into this game, time, money, everything.”