by Greg Melikov - 12/20/2005
Gulfstream Park and three other pari-mutuel venues in South Florida finally hit the jackpot. The quartet will install Las Vegas-style slots during the summer of 2006.
The good news: Florida lawmakers gave their approval nine months after Broward County residents voted for slots. Gov. Jeb Bush, who called a special legislative session in December to enact regulations, said he would sign the bill into law before the summer is out despite his opposition to gambling.
The bad news: The tax rate was set at 50 percent, one of the highest in the country. Combined with requirements for pari-mutuels to hand over some profits to the county and cities as well as horse and dog breeders as well as owners, some officials pegged the actual tax will be closer to 65 percent.
"I think it's setting them up for failure," state Sen. Steve Geller, one of the most vocal opponents of gambling who represents the district that includes Gulfstream, told the media. "I believe they are doing this so the governor can lead a repeal campaign and say, 'See? Look what you have instead of those nice facilities you were promised.' "
In addition, legislative gambling opponents remain hopeful they can reverse the course by bringing up a measure to put a slots-repeal question on November's ballot.
Surprisingly, regulations for slots passed by whopping margins of 112-6 in the House and 33-7 in the Senate.
Gulfstream, Pompano Park harness track, Hollywood Greyhound track and Dania Jai-alai Fronton can install 1,500 machines each and operate them 16 hours every day of the year.
Under the agreement, the state Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering will have six months to develop regulations. If nothing were accomplished within that time period, emergency rules would be implemented to allow machines to be installed.
Gulfstream, in the midst of a massive $171 million renovation, plans to install slots on every floor of its main new building, which should be completed in 2006.
"I imagine we'll have to go back to the drawing board," said Dick Feinberg, general manager of Pompano Park.
"The higher the tax, the more difficult it is to justify an investment."
Pompano Park had envisioned a $150 million complex that included two hotels, restaurants, a 157,000-square-foot "racino" (casino-type building) and even a water park.
Hollywood dog track had planned on a Mardi Gras theme with one or two entertainment stages, three themed bars, a restaurant, a simulcast theater and a slots casino.
Dan Adkins, Hollywood Greyhound vice president, said the dog track now would likely spend about $40 million to remodel an existing building.
"The grand plans I have for expansion I still have, and if I can make it work under this tax rate and environment and compete with the (Indian) tribes, then, I'll have to decide later whether to go ahead," he said.
By agreeing to enact regulations, legislators guaranteed that the Miccosukee and Seminole Indian nations would upgrade their casinos, too.
The legislation gives Bush the framework he needs to resume talks with the tribes, who must sign a "compact" with the state to bring Vegas-style slots to their casinos.
The Miccosukees operate a casino in Miami-Dade County, which rejected in March the same proposal okayed by Broward voters, while the Seminoles run Hard Rock Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa. Neither tribe is subjected to state regulation and pays no taxes.
Meanwhile, officials of Calder Race Course in Miami-Dade Country and Gulfstream have signed an agreement to exchange simulcast signals beginning with Gulfstream's meeting that begins Jan. 4.
The deal allows simulcast wagering at both South Florida tracks on a year-round basis.
It also moves card room operations from Calder to Gulfstream. Calder first opened its card room in May 2004 offering various poker games on live racing days. The year-round card room at Gulfstream will continue to generate revenue for horsemen through purses and to the state through taxes.
The decision is a result of both parties' desires to increase state tax revenue, track revenue and purses, and to promote customer loyalty.
"We believe that year-round simulcasting of thoroughbred racing at each of our facilities will help increase business," said Calder President Ken Dunn. "This is a first for both Calder and Gulfstream."
"This agreement demonstrates that Florida horsemen, Calder Race Course and Gulfstream Park can work together toward a common goal," said Gulfstream President Scott Savin. "The agreement makes good business sense and signals the start of a new cooperative era in Florida racing.
"This deal was three years in the making. The horsemen were also an integral part of making it happen, and it's great to see everybody was able to put their self-interests aside and get along for the greater good of the sport."