MIAMI, November 15, 2011--Given the success of the Florida horse racing program, from its breeding industry, to the world class sport at Gulfstream Park, to the sustenance provided horsemen by the year-round Calder operation, to the history of once-storied Hialeah Park and the recent accomplishments of Tampa Bay Downs, despite all this, Florida’s Thoroughbred industry never really had it easy.

From the beginning of the modern era, competition from Jai Alai--remember Jai Alai?--from “world class greyhound racing” at the Palm Beach and Hollywood kennel clubs, from the winter home of world class harness racing at Pompano Park, and now from the likes of the Hard Rock casino that has given birth to casino action on virtually every street corner, Thoroughbred racing’s problems have intensified.

The latest competition from without, the proposal from a few ambitious legislators to create “destination gambling” in South Florida is a threat that, if enacted as presently proposed, could strike a blow from which the runners might never fully recover.

Almost incredibly, the politics within the industry have gotten worse over time. Even though it may the latest buzz phrase of the business community, “cooperation not competition,” an economic philosophy whose premise is to lift all boats, is a memo that never reached the Thoroughbred halls of executive row.
Gulfstream and Hialeah, once mortal enemies, apparently have adopted that other business stratagem, one that has been in effect probably since Eve first made a deal with the devil: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The common foe is now Churchill Downs Inc., the folks who operate Calder Race Course.

In an earlier post, we alluded to the fact that, with the exception of the signage appearing above Calder’s starting gate, which you have to be at the track, online or at the simulcasts to see--that’s if you can get past the Pick 4 and Pick 5 advertising spots that give sleaze a bad name--signs on the building that now say Calder Casino are the only ones visible to all the passers-by on University Drive to see.

If you didn’t know the building was a racetrack, you wouldn’t know a racetrack was anywhere in sight.

We’d like to posit that morale at Calder is at all-time low but we’re not sure there are enough employees remaining to make morale an issue. Many jobs were eliminated, many leaving of their own volition, and those who do remain are performing the tasks of those no longer there, plus their own.

Unfortunately, this new threat from “destination gambling” not only makes economic sense to non-racetrackers and racetrackers alike, but it’s one that actually might work: The proposed project has legs already planted firmly on the ground.

What makes the new, full-blown Vegas-type casino gambling emporiums so attractive is that they will be replete with a flashy, state-of-the-art facility, the kind of upscale hotel, restaurant and shopping resort that made Las Vegas what it is today. The sight of palm trees here, there and everywhere doesn’t hurt the atmospherics that top class gambling interests create so well.

On the 11 o’clock news Friday night there were two lead stories, the same two stories that appeared on the front page of Saturday’s Miami Herald. One was the success of a newly erected parking garage--yes, a parking garage.

As I recall, this is a 7-story facility erected in South Beach that has, almost as an afterthought, a place where stopped vehicles can live temporarily. This “garage” is an open air facility providing break taking views of all four corners of “the Magic City.” Cultural events such as art exhibitions, fund raisers, and even an upscale wedding reception, have been held high above the street below. It’s all part of creating “the new Miami.”

The other story involved the unveiling of a new logo and uniform design for the Miami Marlins, nee Florida Marlins--a pretty cool logo, too--who are scheduled to play the 2012 baseball season in a brand new stadium. It possibly will come equipped with a new star shortstop, free agent Jose Reyes, reportedly offered a six-year $90 million deal who figures to be well received in a city also known as the “Capital of Latin America.”

Malaysia’s Genting Corporation (sound familiar, New Yorkers?) already owns the waterfront property upon which the Miami Herald stands, and they have made an imprint in Tallahassee, too--the state capital to some degree previously being almost the exclusive province of Hialeah’s John Brunetti. Genting wants to erect one of three new destination casinos on this site.

Casino mogul Steve Wynn and partners are eyeing a 20-acre parcel near the old Miami Arena site upon which they would build a new mega resort. An economic impact study indicates that mega resorts would bring a million new tourists into Dade and Broward counties each year.

Is it any surprise the study was funded by Genting Malaysia?

The racing industry has been battling with Native American tribes for customers already, the tribes’ casinos enjoying a much more favorable tax advantage than racetracks, who’ve made some progress in this arena of late.

But under the provisions of any agreements made with the resort builders, who in 2012 will shell out approximately $155 in licensing fees upfront (sound familiar, New Yorkers?), racetracks would lose any tax advantages they might have gained and/or some they already have. It would be a recipe for fiscal disaster for the tracks.

The battle is not over. But right now, all momentum created by the veneer of “progress” is focused upon the “destination gambling” concept. Legislators in Tallahassee, mainstream news media, and public awareness, is thinking about the kind of gambling away that doesn’t take place at racetracks. The perception is that Thoroughbred racing in Florida already is little more than a quaint notion.