Slots for Calif. Tracks Possible?

Slots for Calif. Tracks Possible?
Photo: Benoit Photo
Casinos may be coming to California racing facilities in the near future.
A California state senator says he expects to see tribal casinos develop an ownership stake in racetracks, leading to the potential for wagering devices such as Instant Racing or slot machines at racing facilities.

"That's a big 10 years out, but yes, I can see that occurring if there is more cooperation between the tribes and the racetracks," says Dean Florez, a  Democrat from Central California who chairs the Senate's Governmental Organization Committee. The committee initiates gaming legislation.

The 44-year-old Florez, who has been involved in talks between racing industry leaders and tribal representatives, was interviewed Nov. 13 on his perspectives toward racing. He says he's been encouraged by the direction of discussions. Several race sponsorships and advertising swaps have resulted, but the senator thinks that is just the beginning.

"I think there's a positive relationship now that probably couldn't have existed a year ago, two years ago for sure," he said. "The question is how do we build on that as something positive to build on the future."

One way, he suggests, is for the casinos to have an ownership stake in the tracks, which have struggled economically. He notes that racetracks can provide two objectives the tribes need most: diversification of their interests and urban locales.

"Locational issues are big for Indian tribes," Florez said. "If, indeed the tracks are partners with Indians in terms of ownership, the question is at what point do the Indians get to push open the door more and more if they are equity partners. I think there has to be a willingness by the racing industry to allow that and I think that's a possibility, I do.

"If a tribe had a 34 percent stake in one of the larger tracks, Santa Anita, say,  why would it forgo putting various types of (wagering) devices, like Instant Racing and others, in those facilities if they were going to make more in the long run in a better locational situation?

"At least it's a better argument (for tracks) than in trying to beat the tribes at the ballot by in essence saying 'we're going to have slots whether you like it or not.' That is a tremendous waste of resources and time. I can see a break of light just starting to happen right now, just slightly. It isn't like the tribes are all trusting the horse racing industry all of a sudden, but the thing is they are realizing there are a few players in racing they can work with, and that's a big start."

Florez says he thinks it unfortunate that Bay Meadows Land Company, which owns Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park, has chosen to help lead the fight against four Indian gaming deals recently signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Opponents of the compacts, which greatly expand the number of slot machines the casinos can operate while also increasing the state's percentage of the revenue, have qualified ballot referenda to overturn the agreements.

At the same time, the 9,000-member Thoroughbred Owners of California has endorsed the compacts.

"In the old days, they used to say that the racing industry was hostile to Indian gaming," Florez said. "I think now people say there a few in the horse racing industry that are hostile. What I hear from the tribes is they don't see it as the entire industry anymore. They see it as a few players within the industry. So I think that lends itself to more sponsorships, more discussions, more cooperation between tribes and tracks. And I think in the long run there could really be some synergies in terms of sharing that might help sustain tracks with more monetary dollars over the long term."

Slot revenue, were it to materialize, could help the tracks financially and fatten purses, but it doesn't answer the industry's viability issues, Florez warns.

"It's a huge attraction for purses and in terms of making money, but I've been out at Gulfstream Park," he notes. "You look at what they've got and you go, 'There's a lot of slots here, but is it successful for horse racing?' Maybe to sustain it from a purse point of view but I'm not sure it makes the sport any more attractive to the masses."

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