Eliot Schechter

Two Companies Attempt to Block Hialeah Casino

Miami Gaming Centers and West Flager Associates filed lawsuits June 30.

The parent companies of two Miami pari-mutuel facilities on June 30 filed a lawsuit that asks a state court in Tallahassee, Fla., to prevent Hialeah Park from having a casino. Their civil suit is similar to one that Calder Race Course filed in that court on June 18.

Blood-Horse on July 2 obtained the suit that Miami Gaming Centers, parent of Miami Jai-Alai, and West Flagler Associates, parent of Greyhound track Magic City Casino, filed in the state circuit court in Leon County. Like Calder, they are challenging a provision of a 2010 state law that gives Hialeah permission to have a casino with Las Vegas-style slot machines.
The Plaintiffs in both suits maintain that the law’s provision that authorizes a casino for Hialeah violates Florida’s constitution because a 2004 voter-approved state constitutional amendment allows casinos only at pari-mutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that held pari-mutuel events in 2002 and 2003.
Calder, Miami Jai-Alai and Magic City (then known as Flagler Greyhound) held events in both years. Hialeah, which held its most recent Thoroughbred meet in 2001, did not have pari-mutuel wagering events in 2002 or 2003.
John Brunetti, owner and president of Hialeah Park, could not be reached for comment on July 2.
Brunetti said on June 22 that Calder’s suit will not stop him from applying for a casino license from Florida regulators.
But he said that if the suit is not resolved within several months he might need to reconsider the timing of some of his plans to continue renovations, add a casino and bring Thoroughbred racing back to his track in Hialeah, Fla. Those plans include having a casino, with Las Vegas-style slot machines, open in the fourth quarter of 2011, he said.
Hialeah Park obtained a Quarter Horse permit last year and returned to racing with a Quarter Horse meet from Nov. 28, 2009 through Feb. 3, 2010. Hialeah and the three tracks that are suing it are in Miami-Dade County.
Magic City opened a casino in October 2009 and Calder opened one in January 2010. Officials of Miami Jai-Alai have said they plan to add a casino at their building.
In both suits, the defendants are South Florida Racing Associates, which operates Hialeah, and the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. That state agency includes the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, which regulates racetracks and frontons and their casinos.
A spokeswoman for the Florida DPMW said that if Hialeah files an application for a casino license, it would “process the application as it processes all applications.” She said that otherwise, the Florida DPMW does not comment on pending litigation.
Michael Olin, a Miami attorney who represents Magic City and Miami Jai-Alai, said he did not consult with Calder and its attorneys before he filed the June 30 suit.
“We have similar interests,” Olin said. “We asked what they (Calder) were doing, and we knew that they would file.”
Olin said he expects the court might consolidate the two lawsuits, thus hearing them together. The suits ask the court to prevent the state regulators from granting a casino license to Hialeah.
The suits do not challenge other parts of Florida’s 2010 gaming law. Effective July 1, that law cut the state tax rate on slot machines from 50% to 35% at the five southeast Florida tracks and frontons that have casinos. They are Calder, Gulfstream Park, Magic City, Mardi Gras Casino, and Isle Casino and Racing at Pompano Park.
In addition to citing the 2004 constitutional amendment, both suits maintain that the 2010 law’s provision that authorizes a casino at Hialeah is an illegal “special law.” The plaintiffs cite a provision of the Florida Constitution that such a special law cannot be passed unless it “is approved by voters” in the area affected.
The suit filed by Magic City and Miami Jai-Alai also maintains that “the challenged Legislation is clearly designed to benefit a single County or private entity, and is thus directly contrary to the Florida Constitution’s prohibitions on laws granting such special privileges.”
During the 2010 legislative session in March and April, Hialeah Park lobbied for inclusion of its provision in the gaming bill that also included an agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida on operations of its casinos. Observers then noted that some Miami-Dade legislators might vote against the bill, possibly preventing passage, if the provision favoring Hialeah were not included.
The legislature passed the bill and Gov. Charlie Crist signed it on April 29. It authorizes Hialeah to have a casino, with Las Vegas-style slot machines, if it also holds a Quarter Horse meet during the Florida fiscal year that began July 1, 2010.
Hialeah has applied with the Florida DPMW to hold a 22-day Quarter Horse meet from Nov. 26, 2010 through Jan. 2, 2011. On June 22, Brunetti said he plans to hold that meet.
Hialeah’s most recent Thoroughbred meet was in 2001.The Florida DPMW revoked Hialeah’s Thoroughbred permit in 2004. It used its authority to revoke the permit of a Thoroughbred holder that did not conduct races during two consecutive years. Since then, the Florida DPMW has denied Hialeah’s requests to restore its Thoroughbred permit.
In March 2009, Hialeah obtained a Quarter Horse permit from the Florida DPMW. The 2010 law allows Hialeah to hold Quarter Horse meets with up to half of its races as Thoroughbred races.
Brunetti on June 22 said Hialeah does not plan to have a mixed meet, with Thoroughbred races and Quarter Horse races, until 2011-2012.
“We want to have everything in place, including our casino, before we have Thoroughbreds,” he said.