Eliot Schechter

Hialeah to Move Forward With Casino Plans

Calder filed a lawsuit last week in an attempt to block the proposed casino.

Hialeah Park owner and president John Brunetti said June 22 that Calder Race Course’s lawsuit that seeks to prevent Hialeah from having a casino will not stop him from applying for a casino license from Florida regulators.

However, Brunetti 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.
As of June 22, Hialeah expects to continue with its plan to hold a 22-day Quarter Horse-only race meet from Nov. 26, 2010 through Jan. 2, 2011.
“We are still reviewing this (suit) and will need to see what it could mean for our other planning,” Brunetti said. “It is a trouble maker, and it could be a deal breaker,”
Calder’s civil suit, filed June 18 in a state court in Tallahassee, maintains that a 2010 Florida gaming law’s provision that allows Hialeah to apply for a casino license violates the state’s constitution.
“I would think that any questions of constitutionality were resolved in the lengthy debate over this bill,” Brunetti said.
Calder and its parent Churchill Downs Inc. have a policy of not commenting on pending litigation, said Wilbur Brewton, the attorney who filed the suit on Calder’s behalf. He is a partner in law firm Brewton Plante in Tallahassee.
Calder is in Miami Gardens, Fla.,11 miles north of Hialeah Park. A casino at Hialeah would be a rival to Calder’s casino, with 1,245 Las Vegas-style slot machines, that opened on Jan. 22, 2010. Both tracks are in Miami-Dade County.
Calder filed its civil suit in the Second Judicial Circuit Court in Leon County. It is the only plaintiff. The three defendants are: South Florida Racing Association, which operates Hialeah; the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation; and that department’s Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, which regulates Florida pari-mutuel wagering and pari-mutuel casinos.
In the suit, Calder maintains that a casino at Hialeah is “impermissible” because a 2004 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.
Broward and Miami-Dade voters, in 2005 and 2008 respectively, gave required follow-up approvals—solely for pari-mutuels that were operating in 2002 and 2003.
Hialeah did not hold Thoroughbred racing or other wagering events from 2002 through 2008. Between Nov. 28, 2009 and Feb. 3, 2010, Hialeah held a 40-day Quarter Horse meet under a permit solely for that sport.
Calder’s suit also maintains that the 2010 law’s provision that authorizes a casino at Hialeah is a “special law.” The suit cites 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 gaming law that Gov. Charlie Crist signed April 29 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 begins July 1, 2010.
Calder’s suit asks the court to overturn only the 2010 law’s provision regarding a possible casino at Hialeah.
Effective July 1, 2010, the law reduces the state tax rate from 50% to 35% on slot machine revenues at casinos of Calder, Gulfstream Park, and three other pari-mutuels in the two southeast Florida counties.
This July 1 also is the first day that Hialeah can apply for a casino license. Brunetti said he will file an application in early July, possibly on July 1, for a casino that would have between 800 and 1,000 slot machines. Hialeah also is preparing to file a response to Calder’s suit, he said. The track’s attorneys have contacted the Florida DPMW, to talk about steps the parties might take as co-defendants.
“We could be working with the Division (Florida DPMW), even though we have had past disagreements,” Brunetti said.
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.
“I was very disappointed by Calder’s action in filing this suit,” Brunetti said. “I was surprised, partly because of its timing.”
He said that according to reports he received on the 2010 legislative session, representatives of Calder never raised the question of whether the provision on a Hialeah casino was constitutional.
“This (suit) was a long time coming,” Brunetti said.
However, some gaming industry officials had been speculating that Calder might make a legal challenge to Hialeah’s plans for a casino.
“Calder’s suit is an action against Hialeah Park, the City of Hialeah, Miami-Dade County and the state of Florida,” Brunetti said.
He noted that some legislators agreed to the new law’s Hialeah casino provision based on prospects that it would enable the track to resume year-round operations and add at least several hundred jobs.
The city of Hialeah plans to file a brief in the suit, supporting Hialeah Park, Brunetti said, though he has not contacted Calder officials. He added that he “would not rule that out” in an effort to resolve the dispute.
The 2010 law allows Hialeah to hold Quarter Horse meets with up to half of its races as Thoroughbred races.
Brunetti said Hialeah does not plan to have a mixed meet, with Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse races, until 2011-2012.
“We want to have everything in place, including our casino, before we have Thoroughbreds,” he said.
He added that Hialeah Park has given the city of Hialeah preliminary plans for a casino it would build on the north side of its clubhouse/grandstand building. 
“Our goal has been to start construction of the casino this fall, and continue during non-racing days of our next meet,” Brunetti said.
The city gave the track permission to open the south portion of its building, but not the north portion, for its 2009-2010 meet.
Brunetti spent $12 million to renovate Hialeah Park and estimates that it had a $3 million operating loss during its Quarter Horse-only meet. Hialeah held those races during periods when Calder and later Gulfstream held racing meets.