04/03/2013 3:25PM

Gulfstream Park slots petition has horsemen wary


A company controlled by Gulfstream Park that recently received a Thoroughbred racing permit for the track has asked the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering to clarify whether the company needs an agreement with horsemen and breeders in order to obtain a license to operate slot machines.

In a petition for declaratory statement filed March 7 with the division, Gulfstream Park Thoroughbred After Racing Program – a company owned by Gulfstream’s parent company that lists its place of business at an address near or on the grounds of Gulfstream – requested that the division issue the clarification because it is “in doubt as to the proper interpretation” of a Florida statute that clearly states that slot machine licenses will not be granted to Thoroughbred permitholders “unless the applicant has on file with the division a binding written agreement between the applicant and the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association,” which represents horsemen in Florida. Identical language in the statute requires an agreement with the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association.

The unusual petition is stirring confusion among Florida horsemen and breeders who do not know whether the request for clarification indicates an attempt by GPTARP, as it is known in the filings, to conduct an end run around the statutory requirements for a binding agreement, in order to cut horsemen and breeders out of a share of any revenues from slot machines the company might operate.

Under state rules, the division has 90 days from the filing of the petition to either issue a response or deny it, according to Sandi Poreda, a spokesperson for the division.

Tim Ritvo, general manager of Gulfstream Park, said horsemen have no reason to fear the plans of GPTARP. He said that under a contract the track reached with horsemen earlier this year “they are guaranteed a share of any revenue from slot machines if we exercise the permit.” The contract runs for at least 25 years, Ritvo said.

So why is GPTARP seeking clarification of the statute regarding the requirement to have an agreement with horsemen and breeders?

“I have no idea,” Ritvo said. “That’s a question for Marc [Dunbar]. Lawyers have a different way of looking at things than you and me, you know?”

Marc Dunbar is Gulfstream’s longtime lobbyist in Tallahassee. He also is the principal behind Gretna Racing, a facility that opened a poker room in northern Florida after the company received a racing permit by conducting parimutuel barrel racing for Quarter Horses. In Florida, only parimutuel permitholders can operate gambling facilities.

Dunbar did not respond to repeated requests for comment this week.

GPTARP obtained its parimutuel permit by holding a Quarter Horse race at Gulfstream in April 2012, on the last day of its meet. The race had two horses that started at the drop of a flag. The permit was converted to a Thoroughbred permit earlier this year.

If GPTARP receives a slot-machine license, Gulfstream would theoretically be able to operate 4,000 slot machines at its Hallandale Beach property, double its current allowed allotment. The track currently operates 860 machines, more than 1,100 fewer than its statutory allotment, in a room in the grandstand that Ritvo said was “retro-fitted” to hold the machines. In fiscal year 2011-12, the machines averaged a net win per day of $173, according to division records, a figure that is far below the national average for slot machines.

The substandard performance of the machines introduces doubts as to whether the local market could sustain 4,000 slot machines, especially considering the range of other casinos in the market. But Ritvo said that Gulfstream plans to build a full-scale casino and resort on the property to house the 4,000 machines if GPTARP is granted a slot-machine license, a glitzy development that would draw more traffic.

“I’m very confident” a new casino could produce better numbers,” Ritvo said. “We’re a retro-fitted casino with no simplicity of entrance here. If we had a real nice casino and hotel here, we could be one of the top parimutuel facilities in the country.”