By Bill Finley
With Hurricane Irma bearing down on the Florida coast, Gulfstream officials have ordered the evacuation of the barns they felt were most vulnerable to damage from the storm. According to Bill Badgett Jr., a member of the upper management team at the track, about 750 horses have already left the track. Trainers were given the option of either sending them to Ocala or to Palm Meadows.
The barns that were evacuated were the ones closest to the backstretch entrance on Hallandale Beach Boulevard. Not only are they the oldest barns on the Gulfstream backstretch but they are in a lower-lying area than other barns are more prone to flooding.
“The good thing was there was so much notice in advance, we are able to jump on this thing before it got too bad,” Badgett said. “We started preparations a couple of days ago and we’ve gotten the horses out. On top of everything else, we’ve been dealing with a shortage of horse vans. But everybody has been working diligently to help one another out.”
Badgett said about 500 horses will remain on the Gulfstream backstretch through the impending storm. They will all be housed in the newer barns or tents that serve as barns. In addition, the nearly 450 horses stabled at Gulfstream Park West are, for the most part, remaining there, Badgett said.
“The tents are hurricane safe up to 175 mile-per-hour winds,” Badgett said. “At Gulfstream West, it looks like that’s actually going to be a pretty good place to be because and they won’t get the big hit from the ocean side. As for our newer barns, anything built down here after 1992 or 1993 has to be up to standards when it comes to hurricanes, and that’s the case with all of those barns. The dormitories are also hurricane proof. For a lot of the workers, these guys are actually safer here than going up the road north where there’s really nowhere to go.”
The horse vans have had to make their way through the snarling conditions on the Florida highways as people are fleeing the area. It is about 42 miles from Gulfstream to Palm Meadows. A one-way trip, Badgett said, took the vans about 6 ½ hours to complete on Thursday.
Trainer Stanley Gold told the TDN that he had sent his entire stable to Arindel Farm in Ocala. Arindel is one of his major clients. Trainer David Fawkes said he left 30 horses at Gulfstream and sent 10 to Ocala, and in many cases left the decision up to his owners.
“Some are leaving and others are going to stay,” Fawkes said. “A lot of people who I train for said the storm is going to hit the Ocala area, too, so they don’t see how much there is to gain by leaving. You could put a lot of time and effort into leaving and wind up in the same situation. We’ve been though this before, with Hurricane Wilma, and nothing happened to the horses. It was a huge storm but all the horses were fine. For the horses that stay here, we’ll do everything we can for them and hope for the best.”
Irma is a Category 5 storm that was causing devastation in the Carribean at press time. It is expected to hit the Florida coast with full force on Sunday. The area encompassing the Gulfstream facility is under a state-ordered mandatory evacuation order, but Badgett said that there are no expectations that anyone who stays behind will face criminal charges.
“A lot of people aren’t leaving,” he said. “I drive through the neighborhoods and the hurricane shutters are up, the sand bags are up. A lot of people are going to ride the storm out.”
That includes many backstretch workers who will have to be on hand at Gulfstream to care for the horses that are remaining there.
“Obviously, our greatest concern is for the workers, the people, the horses,” he said. “They come first. Everybody is in pretty good shape as far as that goes. The backside kitchen will stay open as much as they possibly can, so the guys living in the dorms taking care of the horses have food.”
Badgett added that he was optimistic that Irma would not cause any major damage to the facility or to the track surfaces.
Gulfstream has canceled live racing through Sunday and said they were hoping to re-open on Wed., Sept. 13.