'Tough Race' Seen for Calder Slots

'Tough Race' Seen for Calder Slots
Photo: Leslie Martin
Calder Race Course

by Jim Freer

Calder Race Course president Ken Dunn expects “a tough race” during the last days before Miami-Dade County’s Jan. 29 vote on slot machines for Calder and two other pari-mutuel facilities.

Dunn is not predicting the result, and “Yes for a Greater Miami-Dade,” the pari-mutuels’ political action committee that raised $5.2 million through Jan. 8, is not releasing any poll data.

Several anti-gambling groups are airing radio ads that ask voters to not approve slot machines. The ads include statements from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is popular among Republicans and Cuban-Americans, and from the Humane Society of the United States, which opposes Greyhound racing.

The ballot question is whether Calder, Flagler Dog Track, and Miami Jai-Alai can each install up to 2,000 Class III Las Vegas-style slot machines. Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, expects the slots referendum “will pass, without any question.”

“This time, with all the slot machines at tracks and tribal casinos in the next county (Broward), most voters will probably say Miami-Dade should have them,” said Jarvis, who teaches a course on Florida gambling laws.

In March 2005, Miami-Dade voters by a 52%-48% margin rejected a ballot issue to allow slot machines at their county’s pari-mutuel facilities. The same day, Broward County voters approved slot machines for Gulfstream Park and three other pari-mutuels.

Bush’s campaigning in his home county of Miami-Dade and in radio and TV ads was a big factor in the Miami-Dade election. “Last time, Jeb was the governor and was very visible,” Jarvis said. “He is still popular, but as an ex-governor it is not the same anymore.”

Dunn believes “we have a better opportunity than in 2005, when many people had uncertainties” about how tracks and jai-alai frontons would operate casinos. In December 2005, the Florida legislature passed the law that governs pari-mutuel slots casinos.

Calder, in Miami Gardens, is on the south side of a road that divides Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The Seminole tribe of Florida, which contributed to pari-mutuels’ opponents in previous slots votes, is not taking a position and does not plan any contributions, said its spokesman, Gary Bitner.

The Seminoles have three Broward County casinos. Under an agreement they signed last November with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, the Seminoles are preparing to upgrade from Class II bingo-like machines to Class III machines. The Seminoles also would have exclusive Florida rights to blackjack and baccarat. For the first time, they will pay the state a share of gaming revenues--but at rates much lower than those paid by pari-mutuel facilities.

Miami-Dade facilities, like those in Broward, would pay 50% of net revenue to the state for education programs. Adding state and local taxes and payments to the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and counterparts, total payments would be in the 60% range.

In a first full year with slots, Calder’s pre-tax net revenues from machines could be between $75 million and $100 million, said Ryan Worst, an analyst at New York-based Brean Murray, Carret & Co. who follows Calder parent Churchill Downs Inc. Calder and CDI have not released slot revenue projections.

“We would build a competitive facility for this market,” Dunn said. “Slot machines would be another element in what we have now. This would create jobs, help our current employees and horsemen, and provide additional value to being a Churchill Downs stockholder.”

In a study prepared by an economics firm, Calder’s political action committee projects slot machines at the three facilities would create 1,145 construction jobs and 5,352 permanent jobs. The study projects additional first-year taxes of $210 million to the state, and $26 million to county and local governments.

Anti-slots coalition “No Casinos Miami is using rallies and its Web sites to challenge those projections. First-year slot revenues at Broward pari-mutuels have been lower than what the industry and the legislature projected, said Doug Hurd, chairman of No Casinos Miami.

The Christian Coalition of South Florida, the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, and Greyhound rights group Grey2K USA are members of No Casinos Miami. In rallies and in handouts at churches, No Casinos Miami is using other groups’ studies that point to family economic and community social problems that can result from gambling.

The Humane Society of the United States has donated $500,000 to “Truth for Our Community,” an anti-slots group led by Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina. Several other Hialeah politicians have opposed slots initiatives for several years because Hialeah Park, which last held races in 2001, is not included.

Yes for a Greater Miami-Dade has endorsements from teachers, police, firefighters, and construction unions, and from chapters of the Teamsters and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

As of Jan. 8, Calder contributed almost $3.1 million and Flagler Dog Track contributed almost $2.2 million to the committee, according to Miami-Dade Election Department records.

The Florida HBPA has passed out notices to members, reminding them to tell friends and relatives in Miami-Dade to vote for the slots amendment, said its executive director, Kent Stirling.

Gulfstream is taking no official position, spokesman Mike Mullaney said.

Turnout could be heavy because the Jan. 29 Miami-Dade ballot also has Florida’s presidential primaries and a statewide constitutional amendment on property tax reform.

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