By Bill Heller
For all the criticism Frank Stronach has received for turning Gulfstream Park from a racetrack into a casino/concert hall/shopping mall that offers racing, he’s received very little credit for developing the best training center in the country, 49 miles north of Gulfstream in Boynton Beach: Palm Meadows.
What drives appetite?
Owned and operated by Stronach’s Magna Entertainment Corp., Palm Meadows is just off the Florida Turnpike. The immaculate 304-acre facility has received rave reviews from horsemen since it opened in 2003.
“It’s very nice; it’s the best training center in the world,” trainer Dale Romans said. “For one, everything is so new. The racetracks are in good shape. Everything is state of the art. The barns are nice. They’re airy for the horses. The upkeep is great. It’s as good today as it was the day it opened.”
But Palm Meadows has more than just the fine facilities offered to horses and horsemen from November 1st through May 1st. Under Stronach’s direction, the living quarters for exercise riders, hotwalkers and grooms resemble college dorms rather than the rundown slums found on many racetracks’ backstretches.
Four three-story dorm buildings each consist of 52 rooms. Each 12-by-20 foot room has two beds, its own shower, toilet, microwave, refrigerator, heater/air conditioner and storage locker. Each building has a laundry room equipped with three washers and three dryers. In the courtyard, there are two sand volleyball courts and a patio with benches and barbecue grills.
Imagine that: backstretch workers living like human beings.
“That’s Mr. Stronach,” Palm Meadows General Manager Gary Van den Broek said. “He wanted to provide better living facilities for the people who work here. There’s nothing fancy about them, but they’re better than other facilities.”
Just about everything at Palm Meadows is better than other facilities.
“From the creation and design of the training facility to the creation and design of dormitories for the backside help, Frank continues to show a genuine and unique concern for those who play such an important role in this sport,” Gulfstream Park President and General Manager Bill Murphy said.
There are three training surfaces for horses on Palm Meadows’ spacious site: a 100-foot wide, mile-and-an-eighth dirt track, a 176-foot wide, seven-eighths mile turf course and an 80-foot wide, one-mile, L-shape jogging track which borders the main track. The dirt surfaces are similar to the ones at Gulfstream Park. “We have a little less clay content than what Gulfstream has,” Van den Broek said. “We’re here to leg up horses.”
That’s an option that trainers employ. Romans had a 32-horse barn stabled at Palm Meadows as well as a barn at Gulfstream. “So we go back and forth,” Romans said. “Most of the horses here at Palm Meadows are getting ready to run. They’re young horses, not quite there yet.”
Other horses at Palm Meadows already have amassed impressive credentials. Last winter’s 1,100-horse population at Palm Meadows included Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito’s then-undefeated War Pass, the 2007 Two-Year-Old Champion Colt, as well as an unheralded runner in Rick Dutrow Jr.’s barn named Big Brown, who had won his only start in 2007 by daylight.
Dutrow kept Big Brown at Palm Meadows as he prepared him for this year’s Triple Crown run. “I have about 80 horses in New York, and I talk to my people up there every day,” Dutrow said last spring. “But I’d rather be here with this horse because it’s so much fun. He wants to be here at Palm Meadows.”
Palm Meadows’ configuration may have been one of the reasons why. The barns at Palm Meadows are connected to the main track by a system of horse paths designed so that a horse doesn’t have to walk on pavement to get to the track.
Though Dutrow spent much of the spring denying that Big Brown had ongoing foot problems, the quarter crack he developed before the Belmont Stakes became the hottest story in racing and certainly did nothing to help his chances of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
Before the Kentucky Derby, Big Brown’s major works were at Palm Meadows. He breezed five furlongs in 1:00 3/5 – galloping out six in 1:14 2/5 – on April 18th, then five furlongs in :58 3/5 on April 24th nine days prior to the Run for the Roses.
Big Brown’s powerful victory in the Kentucky Derby, and his triumphs in the Preakness and Haskell Stakes, will do nothing to diminish Palm Meadows’ stature.
When Big Brown was eased in the Belmont Stakes in the only loss of his career, the longshot winner who beat him, Zito’s Da’ Tara, had also wintered at Palm Meadows.
The quickly growing list of Palm Meadows’ alumni who have had tremendous success include 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, 2004 Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes winner Birdstone, 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam, 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor and 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense.
Street Sense’s success last year helped propel his trainer Carl Nafzger into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame this summer. Nafzger remains enthusiastic about Palm Meadows. “This training facility is great,” he said. “It’s fantastic. It’s quiet. You can do so much here to train a horse. You’ve got the chute. You’ve got the turf. You can do everything in the world to train a horse. Of course, everybody comes to Florida because of the weather.”
Zito is well aware of the difference in the weather between Florida and New York every winter. “You always say you’re a product of your environment,” he said. “Obviously, this is a great facility. The surface is good. It’s quiet. It’s a good place to train. That’s the main thing.”
Van den Broek defers accolades to his boss: “All of the credit has to go to Mr. Stronach,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the facility was his design. We didn’t do a thing until he approved it, anything from the color of the screws to the color of the turf to designing the stalls. Everything. It was all him.”
Among the 66 trainers who were stabled at Palm Meadows last winter in addition to Dutrow, Nafzger, Romans and Zito were Jim Bond, Dominic Galluscio, Stanley Hough, Jimmy Jerkens, Steve Klesaris, Michael Matz, Kiaran McLaughlin, Kenny McPeek, Graham Motion, Angel Penna Jr., Linda Rice, Tom Skiffington, Barclay Tagg, John Terranova, Jimmy Toner, Rick Violette, John Ward and Marty Wolfson.
There are 40 barns at Palm Meadows, each with 36 12-by-12 foot stalls with rubber mats. Every other stall is lined with rubber on the walls. Each barn contains an office, a private restroom, two tack rooms, a second restroom for staff, provisions for a washer, dryer and ice machine and a storage loft for light equipment. Twenty 40-foot-wide sand rings allow horses to roll in for fun. A 55,000 square-foot composing plant processes horse waste into compost.
A three-storey administration/lodging building has an employee lounge, a kitchen and a trainer’s lounge with men’s and women’s locker rooms on the first floor. The second and third floors have 30 fully-furnished, one-bedroom efficiency apartments for trainers and assistant trainers with approximately 480 square feet of living space.
Stall rent is $1,200 per stall for the season; dorm rooms are $500 per room for the season and trainer apartments are $1,000 per room with a six-month lease only.
Training hours are from 6:30 to 11am. with one harrow break at 8:30 a.m. The turf track is available for breezing on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 to 11 a.m., and numbers are limited. The starting gate is available on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7 to 9:30 a.m. Free horse-shuttle transportation is available to Gulfstream Park on race days.
Last spring, Tagg had Triple Crown hopeful Tale of Ekati stabled at Gulfstream Park, but transferred him to Palm Meadows. Romans and many other trainers shuttled horses back and forth. A training facility completely separate from a busy, crowded racetrack is a nice option for any trainer.