Gulfstream Renovation, New Track in Ocala Being Considered

Gulfstream Park officials said $150 million would be spent for a complete overhaul of the Hallandale Beach racetrack and Thoroughbred racing would be brought to a new Ocala facility if the Legislature changes the pari-mutuel laws allowing for more simulcast wagering.

Plans are to spend $100 million to upgrade Gulfstream and another $50 million to open the Ocala facility, which would be used for "short boutique meets," Gulfstream chairman Douglas Donn told the Associated Press.

For the plan to go through, officials want to be able to offer simulcast betting at night and throughout the year, as dog tracks and jai-alai frontons are now able to do.

"In order to grow new fans you have to be operating either live racing or non-live racing all year, which we can't do today and everybody else can do and every other major track in the country can do," Donn said. "The horse industry has been inhibited and ... it's dying."

Gulfstream would tear down and rebuild its facilities and install a new racing surface as part of the redevelopment. It also plans a sports entertainment complex, similar to the ESPN Zone restaurants, Donn said.

"We want to try to ... go after new fans, and you can't do that with the old model -- the old guy with the cigar and the trench coat," Donn said.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted 6-2 to approve a bill (SB 2474) that would allow thoroughbred tracks to expand their simulcast hours. In addition, horse tracks can sell their signal to other pari-mutuel facilities within a 25-mile radius, which is now prohibited.

For Gulfstream, that would include Dania Jai-Alai, Hollywood Greyhound track, and others.

Sen. Nancy Argenziano proposed the changes as an amendment to an existing bill, saying they would facilitate $150 million in economic investment.

The bill would also restructure taxes paid by pari-mutuel facilities with a net $5.5 million savings for operators. That would be partially offset by a $350,000 fee on dormant pari-mutuel permits.

The bill's prospects are uncertain. Donn said Rep. Joe Pickens will sponsor a companion proposal in the House. Supporters argue that it is not an expansion of gambling because other pari-mutuel facilities already have year-round simulcasting. They also say it would be a great benefit to Florida's horse breeding industry.

But Argenziano acknowledges stiff opposition. Among opponents in the industry is Calder Race Course, which is located in Miami-Dade County, a few miles from Gulfstream. Lobbyist Wilbur Brewton said the bill would force Calder to sell its simulcast signal to Gulfstream.

He called upon lawmakers to not rush when changing pari-mutuel laws.

"I do not believe I can tell you right now everything that's in this amendment, nor do I understand most of what's in here," Brewton said. "I do understand bad public policy and bad legislation and I would suggest you ... kill it."

Gulfstream offers live racing three months out of the year while Calder operates the other nine months. Calder would also be able to expand its simulcast schedule under the bill.