In South Florida, a Tale of Two Tracks

Calder Race Course and Gulfstream Park are just eight miles away, both straddling the Miami-Dade/Broward County line in South Florida. But following the results of the March 8 municipal elections, the tracks may soon be entirely different.

While 57% of Broward voters approved slot machines at the county's four pari-mutuel facilities, including Gulfstream, the same initiative was defeated in Miami-Dade by a 52%-48% margin. As a result, depending on the actions of the Florida legislature, which is expected to address slots regulation during its session that began March 8, Gulfstream is free to commence action to place slots at its re-constructed Hallandale Beach facility.

"We're gratified that the voters in Broward approved the measure but that was just one of the hurdles," Gulfstream president Scott Savin said. "It's way too soon to begin making any plans."

Meanwhile, Calder president Ken Dunn, while maintaining optimism the measure will be approved when placed in front of the voters again in 2007, was clearly frustrated. "The people of Dade County made a mistake," he said. "They gave up the opportunity to create something special."

Both Dunn and Earl Bender, the campaign chairman of Floridians for a Level Playing Field, the trade organization comprised of the seven licensed pari-mutuel operators in the two counties that pressed for slots, blamed the defeat in Miami-Dade to an increased voter turnout sparked by the strong opposition to the measure by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

"Voters who were inclined to vote 'no" were more easily mobilized by the governor, and they are more intense," Bender said. "If we had the same turnout we had in the general election, we would have easily gotten 57% again."

With a presidential election topping the ballot, the statewide election last November permitting the issue to be placed in front of voters in the two counties carried both Broward and Miami-Dade. This time around, with only a smattering of municipal issues on the ballot, turnout was small: 17% of registered voters cast ballots in Broward, and less than 15% in Miami-Dade.

Still, Dunn said the count was some 30,000 ballots higher than projected, due in large part to 11th-hour campaigning by the governor to defeat the measure.

Looking ahead, Dunn and Bender expect Floridians for a Level Playing Field to stay active in pushing for favorable regulatory legislation and also to pass the measure in two years, the soonest it is permitted by state law.

"We'll be back in 2007 armed with more information that hopefully shows that Broward was right and Miami-Dade was wrong," Dunn said.

Focus now shifts to the state capital of Tallahassee, where legislation has been introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives to tax slot revenue at 30%. Florida Sen. Steve Geller said he doesn't expect the legislature to be a problem. "But the governor--that's a different story," he said.

While the potential exists for seismic shifts in the South Florida racing scene, neither Dunn nor Savin were ready to predict dramatic changes.

Dunn said the outcome would have no impact on Calder's 2005 meet, while Savin, whose parent company Magna Entertainment Corp. has long pressed to expand its live meet beyond its current 16 weeks, was placatory.

"We're looking to keep the coalition together because we want to see racing in Florida thrive," Savin said. "You won't see any dramatic changes in the racing landscape."