By Bill Finley
With only a handful of horses in his barn, trainer Billy Badgett went to Florida in 2014 hoping for a fresh start. He thought a change of scenery would do him some good. Never did he imagine the move south would completely change the trajectory of his career.
Badgett’s time as a Florida-based trainer was a brief one. Shortly after his arrival, Stronach Group executive Tim Ritvo offered him a job on the Gulfstream management team. He wanted Badgett to be his boots on the ground, to work with the horsemen, to make sure everything was running smoothly on the backstretches of Gulfstream, Gulfstream Park West and Palm Meadows, and if there was a problem that needed fixing, he should fix it.
“When I got here, Tim Ritvo told me he had an opportunity for me at Gulfstream to work with [Stronach Group executive] P.J. Campo,” Badgett said. “It looked like a great time to do it. I was light on horses anyway. I started from there, working with Tim and P.J. and learning the ropes and making the transition from being a trainer to being involved in the managerial part of running a racetrack. It’s gone well.”
It’s gone better than that. When Gulfstream opened its Championship Meet last Saturday a new man was in charge, Billy Badgett. Though Campo still has his hand in running Gulfstream, he has taken on added duties within the Stronach company and his promotion led to Badgett being named Gulfstream Park general manager.
Badgett was an assistant to Woody Stephens during the glory days of that stable and then went on his own in 1982. In 1989 and 1990 he guided the career of Hall of Famer Go for Wand, a champion at two and three.
“I just thought I’d die as a trainer, like most trainers do,” he said. “It’s a life-long job and you kind of stay with it.”
In 2004, he said he was suffering from burnout and decided to try his hand as a pinhooker. He returned to training in 2007 but was not able to enjoy the success he had during the Go for Wand years. That was among the reasons he jumped at the opportunity when Ritvo asked him to try his hand at racetrack management.
He wasn’t the first former trainer to go to work at Gulfstream. Ritvo also trained and Campo, though never a trainer himself, comes from a family of horsemen and grew up on the racetrack. His father, Johnny, won the 1981 GI Kentucky Derby with Pleasant Colony.
“Being a former trainer, it actually really helps out quite a bit,” Badgett said. “Being a trainer is seven days a week and you start at five in the morning and you might be going all day on some days. It helps you build a strong work ethic. That’s really helped me rolling over into this. I’m able to get a lot of my work done early in the mornings before everyone gets here. The corporate guys usually come in around nine and that’s when we start to have meetings. By that time, I’ve gotten a lot done.
“It is pretty much like being a trainer. Timmy works seven days a week and so does P.J. You just fall right into it. It’s pretty much a seven-day week. You have the racing part and Mondays and Tuesdays [when Gulfstream is dark] are the busiest days with the meetings and budgeting.”
The racing part, he says, comes naturally. It’s those meetings and the paperwork that still take some getting used to.
“That stuff is very time consuming,” he said. “I didn’t have to do that before (being named general manager). Just this morning I had a 9:00 meeting, a 10:00, an 11:00 and now a 2:00 meeting.”
With great weather, terrific racing and large fields, Gulfstream is among the most successful tracks in the U.S. and has enjoyed considerable growth in handle over the last few years. That might seem like the sort of place anyone could run, but Badgett said he feels a lot of pressure to keep up the momentum.
“You definitely feel pressure,” he said. “Coming in, Saturday last year they did $11 million, and I thought that might be tough to equal, then we wound up doing $12 million. That was a tremendous day considering New York put their big [GI] Cigar Mile day against us, which we didn’t have last year, and we’re still doing construction on the north Tiki area that got damaged in the hurricane. So that whole area is shut down and I thought that was going to hurt us. These big days do bring a lot of pressure and stress, that’s for sure.”
Ritvo, Campo and others taught him to keep his eye on the ball and always look for ways to make the betting product better and improve the fan experience.
Gulfstream handled $19,028,634 over opening weekend, a 12.5% increase over the previous year. It looks like Badgett learned his lessons well.