09/28/2004 11:00PM

First step toward slots

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MIAMI - The possibility of slot machines at Florida racetracks could hang in the balance when voters go to the polls on Nov. 2.

Amendment 4, a statewide referendum that could lead to the eventual legalization of slot machines in Dade and Broward counties, is the key issue for the local parimutuel industry. Falling purses in south Florida combined with the escalation of purses in many sections of the country that have already legalized slots has created a difficult situation for local horsemen and racetrack owners alike. It's critical enough for the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association to authorize the expenditure of $1 million from its purse accounts, spread over the next three years, to help fund a campaign geared towards the passage of Amendment 4 and any future referendums that would bring slot machines into local racetracks.

"We have just become partners in a group called Floridians for a Level Playing Field," explained Kent Stirling, director of the FHBPA. "The other primary players in the group are Calder/Churchill Downs Inc., Hollywood Dog Track, Flagler Dog Track, and Pompano Harness Track."

Stirling said one of the primary reasons to pledge the money was to protect local horsemen's interests should slots become legalized in the state.

"We are in essence defending our own turf by becoming part of this consortium," said Stirling. "If slot legislation is enacted, members of this group will stand the best chance of getting the largest shares of the pie when the state decides what percentage of monies from slots will be returned to help fund purse accounts at the respective tracks."

The referendum is the first step toward a second one that would ask voters in Dade and Broward counties to approve slots. According to Stirling, if Amendment 4 is passed, Floridians for a Level Playing Field will push for the second referendum to be held no later than March. That would give state legislators time to take up the issue before their 2005 session ends later that spring.

"Governor Bush could still veto the bill," Stirling said. "But with the potential of raising an additional four to five million dollars for education to be shared statewide, especially at a time when the state needs all the money it can get following the recent devastation brought about by all the hurricanes . . . even a governor who has historically been opposed to the expansion of gambling may find it hard to veto the bill."

Stirling estimated that the addition of slots at Calder and Gulfstream Park could double purses for local horsemen within the first full year.

"Right now, most of the bigger trainers at Calder cannot afford to remain on the grounds beyond this year without an increase in purses," said Stirling. "Gulfstream would also see a further decline in the quality of its product and would no longer be recognized as the Lion of Winter in the national racing community."

Among the most noteworthy victims of the current purse schedule at Calder is leading trainer Bill White, who has seen four of his most promising 2-year-olds leave his barn this summer after posting maiden wins. Punch Appeal was sold privately and recently captured the Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies at Turfway Park; Little Hussy was sent to Woodbine, where she has already won an allowance race on the turf; while Magoo's Magic and Hide and Chic were transferred to the barns of trainers Allen Jerkens and Bill Mott, respectively, in New York.

"As far as I'm concerned Amendment 4 is our last stand to save racing in south Florida in general and at Calder in particular," Stirling said.