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Calder Has Big Plans for Gaming Operation

Calder Casino & Race Course is gearing up to offer poker and slot-machine gaming.

Calder Race Course is preparing marketing plans for poker and a casino president and general manager Tom O’Donnell expects will attract a significant number of customers from some nearby pari-mutuel facilities and tribal casinos in southeast Florida.

The Miami Gardens, Fla., track that now uses the full name Calder Casino & Race Course will open a poker room Oct. 23, and plans to open a casino with slot machines late in January 2010.

Calder has rivals in every direction but west. On Oct. 20 at a gaming conference in Hollywood, Fla., O’Donnell said he regards southeast Florida as “a vertical market” with Calder in a central point. Calder is on the north end of Miami-Dade County, right across its boundary with Broward County.

“We are 24 minutes and 32 seconds from the Isle,” O’Donnell said at Spectrum Gaming’s fifth annual Florida Gaming Summit, held at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. The Isle Casino and Racing in Pompano Beach is a harness track with a poker room and a two-year-old slots casino. It is 23 miles north of Calder. Both are near exits to Florida’s Turnpike.

Michael Bloom, the Isle’s vice president and general manager, answered a panel question right before O’Donnell. Thus, O’Donnell used the Isle as an example of how Calder has been doing research with the hope of making a fast start with poker and its casino’s slot machines during the recession.

O’Donnell said Calder has been able to observe the operations and marketing of three nearby casinos that opened in 2006 and 2007. Those casinos are at Gulfstream Park, Isle, and Greyhound track Mardi Gras Race Track and Gaming Center.

He said Calder and parent Churchill Downs Inc. have been spending to develop marketing programs “that we think are more sophisticated than some other (casinos) nearby.” He would not disclose details.

O’Donnell was previously an executive at Harrah’s Entertainment in positions that included Gulf Coast region president. He said he is using knowledge and experience he gained at Harrah’s to help Calder develop marketing and other plans for Calder’s casino. That building, under construction on the property’s west side, will have 1,225 Class III Las Vegas-style slot machines.

Calder will be the second Miami-Dade pari-mutuel facility with a casino. On Oct. 15, Flagler Greyhound Track opened its Magic City Casino, with 700 Las Vegas-style slot machines.

The increasing competition for slots players and ongoing political issues involving the Seminoles and pari-mutuel operators were major topics at the Florida Gaming Summit.

Pari-mutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties pay a 50% state tax on slots revenue. A bill the Florida legislature passed in May and Gov. Charlie Crist signed in June would reduce that rate to 35%.

Broward and Miami-Dade are the only Florida counties in which horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons can have slot machines. But terms of that law will take effect only if the legislature and Crist can agree to a gaming compact with the Seminoles, who have seven Florida casinos.

On Aug. 31, Crist and the Seminoles signed a compact that would not change any of the May law’s provisions on pari-mutuels, including the lower slots tax rate. The pending law and the Aug. 31 compact also call for the Seminoles, who have Las Vegas-style slots, to pay the state at least $150 million a year from their gaming revenue.

The Seminoles didn’t pay any gaming revenue to the state until last year, when they made a $100-million payment.

The compact would permit the Seminoles to stop paying any share of gaming revenue to the state if the legislature ever permits any pari-mutuel facilities outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties to have casino gaming. Several leaders of the legislature and numerous members have said they cannot accept a Seminole compact that in effect could prevent pari-mutuel facilities from adding casinos.

Negotiations among Crist advisers, Seminole officials, and several legislators reportedly have produced little progress toward compromise. Thus, Sen. Dennis Jones, chairman of the committee with initial jurisdiction on gaming issues, on Oct. 19 told The Blood-Horse he sees “little support among the members” for scheduling a special session this year on the compact and other gaming issues.

In that case, Jones, a Republican from the St. Petersburg suburb of Seminole, expects the legislature would not begin work on a new gaming bill until its regular session next March and April.

At the conference Oct. 20, James Allen, the Seminoles’ chief executive officer for gaming operations, said the tribe is concerned that all 26 pari-mutuel facilities outside southeast Florida might eventually have casinos. He said that makes the Seminoles concerned about their completive position.

Allen said the Seminoles remain ready to talk with Crist, legislators, and pari-mutuel officials to resolve differences over the compact.

The law passed in May and the Aug. 31 compact would give the Seminoles state approval for the blackjack and baccarat, which they now have at three casinos. The Seminole casinos and almost all of Florida’s pari-mutuel facilities have poker rooms.

Calder’s “Studz Poker Club” will have 29 tables. State laws permit the track to have a poker room open a maximum 12 hours a day. Calder can be open 24 hours for poker, because it has its Calder racing permit and the racing permit of the closed Tropical Park.

Calder’s poker room will be open each weekend from 9 a.m. Friday through 3 a.m. Sunday—including 24 hours on Saturday. It will be open from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. all other days.

With its expected casino opening in January, Calder plans to market that attraction to fans attending the 2010 Pro Bowl Jan. 31 and Super Bowl XLIV one week later Feb. 7. Both games will be at Land Shark Stadium, less than a mile from Calder.

Calder will end its 2009-10 racing season Jan. 2, with Gulfstream Park opening the next day.