The casino at Calder Race Course.

The casino at Calder Race Course.

Jim Lisa Photos

Calder Tries to Block Proposed Hialeah Casino

Calder filed a lawsuit in Tallahassee, Fla., June 18.

Calder Race Course has asked a state court in Tallahassee, Fla., to overturn a provision of a 2010 Florida law that allows Hialeah Park to apply for and operate a casino. 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.

In a civil lawsuit filed on June 18, 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 Park, in the Miami-Dade city of 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.

A 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.

John Brunetti, Hialeah Park’s chairman and owner, could not be reached for comment on Calder’s suit.

The 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.

Wilbur Brewton, an attorney who represents Calder, said the track and its parent Churchill Downs Inc., do not comment on ongoing litigation.

Calder is in Miami Gardens, in Miami-Dade County. It is 11 miles north of Hialeah Park.

Calder filed its 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.

A spokeswoman for the Florida DPMW said that agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.

On May 12, Brunetti told The Blood-Horse that he and his attorneys were reviewing the 2010 law to determine whether Hialeah would prepare for expansion that would include a casino, a retail mall and what he called an entertainment destination.

Hialeah has applied to hold a 22 day Quarter-Horse meet from Nov. 26, 2010 through Jan. 2, 2011. The 2010 law allows Hialeah to hold up to half its races in that meet as Thoroughbred races. In May, officials of the Florida DPMW said that holding that meet would make Hialeah eligible to open a casino in 2011.

In a June 18 Miami Herald story, prior to Calder’s filing its suit, Hialeah Park general manager Randy Soth said the track plans to file for a casino license in July.  The 2010 law sets July 1, 2010 as  the first day that Hialeah can file for such a license.

In addition to citing the 2004 statewide vote, Calder’s suit noted that the 2008 Miami-Dade referendum authorizes casinos only at the county’s three pari-mutuels that were open in 2002 and 2003.

Flagler Greyhound in Miami opened a casino last year and took the new name Magic City Casino. Miami Jai-Alai, the third eligible site, does not have a casino.

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.

Basically, Calder contends that the 2004 constitutional amendment should override the 2010 legislative permission for a Hialeah casino. Thus, Calder is asking the court to rule that the law’s provision authorizing a casino for Hialeah is “an impermissible special law.”

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 hold 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.

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 months when nearby Calder and later Gulfstream held racing meets.

The Miami Herald ‘s June 18 story focused on the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation’s concerns that any re-development at Hialeah might endanger some of its historic buildings. Officials of that organization are concerned that Hialeah Park could lose its listing as a National Historic Landmark on the National List of Historic Places.

“It’s our intention to maintain the integrity of the existing structures,” Soth told the newspaper. “None of that is to be torn down.”