Coglianese Photos

Gulfstream Night Racing Finding Some Support

Changes in state law would be required to make Florida track changes possible.

Gulfstream Park could have some important political support in its goal to change a state law that prohibits Thoroughbred racing after 7 p.m., provided that the Florida Legislature next year also grants new benefits to other pari-mutuel sports.

But Gulfstream, in Hallandale Beach, Fla., also could find opponents for that change for Thoroughbred permit holders. And if the legislature allows it to have night racing, it would have to work out arrangements including contracts with horsemen.

On the positive side for Gulfstream, Sen. Dennis Jones (R-Seminole), who has sponsored several gaming bills, and Greyhound racing executive Dan Adkins, who has opposed Gulfstream on numerous regulatory issues, both said there might be reasons for removing the night racing ban during the legislature’s 2011 regular session.

That session will run from March 8 through May 6. Gulfstream will hold its 2011 race meet be from Jan. 5 through April 24. Thus, it is extremely unlikely that Florida will change its law on night racing prior to the end of that meet.

Even amid that timetable Dennis Mills, CEO of Gulfstream’s parent MI Developments, early this month said Gulfstream plans to install lights around its track before the start of its 2011 meet.

“We are probing the possibilities, and trying to see how we could do this,” Mills said on Sept. 16. “Two different organizations have spent time at Gulfstream doing analysis of technical feasibility and costing. We are talking with track management and those who run the physical plant about the best way of doing this.”

MID, based in Aurora, Ont., is not disclosing a date for when it might begin installing lights.

Mills said MID’s plan to install lights at Gulfstream is part of a “process of changing the sport and making it more accessible to people.”

“Ninety-five percent of the people I know work during the day,” he said. “I am sure they would enjoy an evening experience of racing at Gulfstream on some Thursdays or Fridays.  We are not talking about this (night racing) for Saturdays or Sundays.”

However, Sam Gordon, president of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said: “Most of the trainers, including those that come down from the northeast, have said they are not interested in night racing at Gulfstream.”

Gordon said no officials of MID or of Gulfstream have talked with him about a plan to install lights.

A change in racing hours would need to be approved by the Florida HBPA in any annual contract with Gulfstream.

Thus, the Florida HBPA could be among groups to which MID and Gulfstream would point out possible economic and publicity benefits of night racing.

“Our inspiration for this came from the experiment last year and this year at Churchill Downs, where it was a tremendous success,” Mills said.

He also mentioned that Portland Meadows, which MID owns, and Woodbine “have had similar success” with occasional night programs.

“We would absolutely negligent if we did not explore this option,” Mills said. “Frank Stronach (MID chairman) has repeatedly said that the current model in racing is broken and is not working. We have a fiduciary duty to look at every possible means to create value for our assets.”

In talks with members of the Florida Legislature, MID and Gulfstream “will explain how night racing would make economic sense and create jobs,” Mills said.

Gulfstream expects to present its 2011 goals to House and Senate members after the Nov. 2 election, said Marc Dunbar,  the outside counsel for MID and Gulfstream. He is a partner in the Pennington Law Firm in Tallahassee.

Jones, whose district is outside St. Petersburg, is seeking election for a fifth term and, if elected, hopes to again be chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee. That committee has initial jurisdiction over bills related to pari-mutuels.

Jones said Gulfstream officials have mentioned night racing in previous years.

“But it was not one of the main issues,” he said.

In 2010, Florida passed a law that establishes revenue payments from the Seminole Tribe’s gaming operations. That law also reduced the state tax rate from 50% to 35% on slot machine revenues for Gulfstream, Calder Casino & Race Course and other pari-mutuels with casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

“Now, some other issues can come forward,” Jones said. “If the (Thoroughbred) racing industry has a consensus and can demonstrate that night racing can provide economic benefits, I would lean to supporting it.”

Officials of Calder, in Miami Gardens, Fla., declined to comment on whether their track would consider night racing if it is permitted. Officials of Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, Fla., were not available for comment.

Mills and Adkins, general manager of Greyhound track Mardi Gras Gaming in Hallandale Beach, have talked once about Gulfstream’s goal to obtain night racing.

“Danny was very open and receptive to our idea,” Mills said

“I told Dennis that we will be open to listening on night racing if it is part of some wider changes,” said Adkins, whose Greyhound/track casino is about one mile north of Gulfstream.

Possible changes to help Mardi Gras could include letting it and other non-Thoroughbred pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward counties take Thoroughbred signals before 6 p.m., he said.

Other Florida pari-mutuels and the Seminole Tribe, which competes with Gulfstream for night slots and poker business, also can be expected to have lobbying views on the night racing question.

Florida’s ban on post 7 p.m. Thoroughbred racing is part of its long-standing effort to protect Greyhound tracks and jai-alai frontons by providing them with their own hours of live performances.

However, live wagering has been declining at many of those facilities in Florida for more than a decade. Most are becoming increasingly reliant on revenues from poker and from simulcasts, including Thoroughbreds.

“I hope that people in our industry (pari-mutuels) can sit down and make suggestions for changes on when you can operate and on what you can offer,” Adkins said.

If the legislature does not change the law on night Thoroughbred racing, Gulfstream would be eligible to use its Quarter Horse permit to hold races after 7 p.m. in a mixed meet with that breed and Thoroughbreds.

The 2010 law allows any track’s first Quarter Horse meet to have as few as 20 race programs. Up to half the races could be for Thoroughbreds.

Mills mentioned the Quarter Horse option as one with “a gray area” on when and how Gulfstream might consider it and use it,.  He emphasized that Gulfstream is “exploring many ideas” regarding lights and overall use of the property.

Gordon said: “Our horsemen have always said they never want any Quarter Horse racing at Gulfstream.”

Considering that opposition and the logistics of arranging a first Quarter Horse meet, it probably is unlikely that Gulfstream would take the Quarter Horse option to provide action under its lights.

Mills said Gulfstream will not have night concerts using a temporary stage on the dirt track or turf.

“This is not a rock and roll stadium,” he said. ‘I think Gulfstream Park is the finest race track on the East Coast. We need to do more festivals and other events.“

By adding lights around the track,  Gulfstream “can explore more  of these ideas,” he said.