Hialeah Park

Hialeah Park

Eliot Schechter

Hialeah Hires Former Gulfstream President

Steve Calabro will head the proposed gaming operations at the Florida racetrack.

Hialeah Park has hired Steve Calabro, a former Gulfstream Park president, for its new position of director of gaming.

Calabro began working at the Hialeah, Fla., racetrack in mid-August. He was traveling Aug. 29 and could not be reached for comment.

Calabro is among the Hialeah Park officials who are planning for a casino the track expects to start building this fall and open in November, 2012, said John Brunetti, Hialeah chairman and owner. “Steve will be in charge of our casino operations after it opens,” Brunetti said.

Brunetti said he hired Calabro “because of his knowledge of the South Florida market and his experience with other casinos.”

Calabro was Gulfstream’s president and general manager from May 2010 until he resigned in June for reasons he and Gulfstream did not disclose. Prior to becoming Gulfstream’s president, he spent three years as its vice president of gaming, with responsibility for its casino and poker room.

Before joining Gulfstream,  Calabro held management positions at Trump Entertainment Resorts and at Harrah’s Entertainment.

But questions about the legal status of the planned casino remain unanswered. Calder Casino & Race Course and two other southeast Florida pari-mutuel facilities are continuing their lawsuit in state court that maintains a casino is not permissible at Hialeah under the Florida constitution.

On Nov. 22, 2010, a judge in the Second Judicial Circuit Court in Leon County ruled in favor of Hialeah. Plaintiffs Calder, Magic City Casino (formerly Flagler Greyhound) and Miami Jai-Alai appealed that decision to the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. That court will hear oral arguments Sept. 7.

Michael Olin, an attorney who represents Magic City and Miami Jai-Alai, said he expects the court could announce a decision within several weeks or perhaps not until late this year—depending on factors that include the judges’ workload. Olin and Brunetti both said they expect the case will eventually be decided in the Supreme Court of Florida.

Amid that likely legal process, Hialeah has scheduled a Sept. 9 groundbreaking ceremony for a casino. One possible issue that could be critical is whether a Florida court could order the closing of a Hialeah casino that is built and operating.

Brunetti said Hialeah expects to spend $100 million or more to build a casino that would have Las Vegas-style slot machines and a poker room. Hialeah plans to reconstruct the north side of its grandstand/clubhouse building as a casino, and connect it to a new building that would extend east to west. That would create a building that half encloses the paddock and garden area.

Renderings and details will be released Sept, 9, Brunetti said.

Hialeah has not had Thoroughbred racing since 2001. It will hold its third Quarter Horse meet from Dec. 10, 2011-Feb. 19, 2012 with racing Fridays through Sundays. With its Quarter Horse permit, Hialeah can hold mixed meets with up to half its races as Thoroughbred races, but it does not plan to have any Thoroughbred races in 2011-2012, Brunetti said.

A gaming law the Florida legislature passed in 2010 authorizes Hialeah to have a casino if it continues to hold annual Quarter Horse meets.

In their suit, the three other pari-mutuel facilities’ central argument is that a 2004 voter-approved state constitutional amendment, followed by votes in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, allows casinos only at the seven facilities in those two counties that held pari-mutuel events in 2002 and 2003. Hialeah did not hold horse racing or other pari-mutuel events either year.

The circuit court ruled that the 2004 constitutional amendment did not have language that forever would allow casinos only at the seven specified facilities. Thus, it determined that a casino is permissible at Hialeah under the 2010 law.

Olin said that in the appeals court, as in the lower court, “our argument is that the Florida constitution, by action of voters statewide and later in Miami-Dade and Broward, pre-empts any action by the legislature that would expand the number of such constitutionally eligible facilities.”

A Calder official said the track and its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., have a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

Brunetti said he is confident Hialeah will win in the appeals court. He said that view is based on opinions of lawyers who represent Hialeah and of two lawyers that are advising lenders that are considering participation in the financing of a casino at Hialeah.