Calder Launches Pro-Slots Effort

Calder Launches Pro-Slots Effort
Photo: Leslie Martin
Calder Race Course management is seeking to legalize casino gaming at the south Florida track.

by James Freer

Calder Race Course in South Florida has launched its campaign for the Jan. 29, 2008, Miami-Dade County vote on whether to allow Las Vegas-style slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities.

Calder president Ken Dunn and officials of Miami’s Flagler Dog Track believe their chances of winning are better than in March 2005, when Miami-Dade voters rejected a slots ballot issue. The day of that vote, Broward County voters approved slot machines for Gulfstream Park and three other facilities.

“This time, people will know what the hours are and what the other rules are,” Dunn said. “They have seen benefits slot machines are bringing (in Broward County).”

Calder and Flagler will stress to Miami-Dade voters that if they say “no” on slots, many county residents will keep spending money on gaming and other entertainment at Broward racetracks and at untaxed cruise boats and Tribal casinos, Flagler chief executive officer Barbara Havenick said.

Miami-Dade’s pari-mutuel facilities lost the 2005 vote by a 52%-48% margin partly because then-Gov. Jeb Bush, a staunch foe of gambling, campaigned against the initiative in his home county. Gov. Charlie Crist’s staff is not saying whether he will take a stand on the Jan. 29 ballot question.

Crist opposes expansion of gambling. But he is negotiating with the Seminole Tribe of Florida for a deal that would let it to upgrade from Class II to Class III slots--the ones now at racetracks--and for the first time pay Florida taxes on slots revenue.

Florida has a Nov. 15 deadline from the United States Department of the Interior to sign a deal with the Seminoles. Otherwise, a federal law permits Florida tribal casinos to put in Class III machines, without paying taxes, because Broward County pari-mutuel facilities have them.

There is speculation among politicians that Crist will not oppose the Miami-Dade slots issue because of revenue implications. Miami-Dade facilities, like those in Broward, would pay a state tax of 50% on slots revenue. That money is used for education programs around Florida.

Meanwhile, Greyhound rights advocates and anti-gambling groups will again start a grassroots campaign to defeat the slots issue, said Corey Theil, executive director of Grey2KUSA, a Somerville, Mass.-based Greyhound rights organization.

Calder and Flagler have formed campaign committee called “Yes for a Greater Miami-Dade.” Miami Jai-Alai, the county’s third pari-mutuel outlet, has given Calder and Flagler “a letter of support,” Havenick said.

Dunn said the tracks are considering television, radio, and newspaper advertisements. He and Havenick would not disclose timetables for starting them.

The tracks have released a study by The Washington Economics Group, a research firm in Coral Gables, Fla., that projects slot machines at the three Miami-Dade sites could create 5,352 permanent jobs in their first full year. The firm estimates 6,000 machines would generate $210 million for the state in the first full year.

Broward’s pari-mutuel casinos, still in the formative stages, are on track for about $50 million this year.

Ironically, the research group’s president, Antonio Villamil, is a friend and former adviser to Jeb Bush. “I am not taking sides on the ballot issue,” Villamil said. “They contracted us to do a professional study. Our research shows there would be significant benefits.”

Calder and parent company Churchill Downs Inc. are not disclosing a timetable for building a casino should the measure pass.

“We will have a competitive, first-rate facility,” Dunn said. “We will retrofit our building or build a free-standing building with access (to the grandstand/clubhouse).”

The Isle Casino and Racing at Pompano Park, a harness track with a free-standing slots casino, has a 2007 average win-per machine per day of $211. Through Oct. 28, that is the best among South Florida pari-mutuel facilities.

Mardi Gaming and Racing Center in Hollywood, with one retrofitted casino room, had a $167 average. Gulfstream, with separate casino rooms on its ground and second floors, had a $76 average. Mardi Gras and Gulfstream are located about one mile apart.

Dunn also said Calder hopes to send its simulcast signal to more South Florida outlets. Calder is finalizing an agreement to carry Gulfstream’s signal when that track starts its season Jan. 3, he said.

On Sept. 6, the Florida Supreme Court overturned a Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering rule that barred Calder, Gulfstream, and Pompano Park from exchanging signals.

Gulfstream and Pompano began carrying Calder Sept. 22. Pompano carries about 10 other tracks in its first-ever afternoon Thoroughbred simulcast program. Gulfstream had not been able to carry simulcasts before 6 p.m. during its off season. Calder and Gulfstream will start taking Pompano’s night signal Nov. 16.

Calder would like to send its signal to Flagler, another change permitted by the court. But the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association opposes sending it to a non-horse track, Dunn said.

Gulfstream produced about $5.9 million in afternoon handle through Nov. 8, an average of about $150,000 per day. That included $665,000 wagered on Calder races.

“We are pleased with the business,” Gulfstream spokesman Mike Mullaney said. “The intention is to continually grow it. People form beach municipalities who ordinarily would not go to racing find Gulfstream Park a convenient place to watch and wager.”

Pompano is averaging about $135,000 a day in afternoon Thoroughbred betting. Many bettors also like the adjacent slots casino and the ability to drive shorter distances to bet on races, said Steve Wolf, senior director of racing for the facility.

Simulcasts at Gulfstream and Pompano have cut into Calder’s attendance and on-track handle by amounts Dunn said cannot be determined. But Calder welcomed the change, which creates more options for fans and Calder getting a share of simulcast handle.

Calder, under a new CDI policy, did not report attendance and handle from its meet that ended Oct. 14. For the same meet in 2006, however, average daily on-track handle for Calder races was $360,687.  Calder was on pace with last year in handle through August, Dunn said.

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