10/28/2004 11:00PM

Slot passage would give industry boost

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Florida's Thoroughbred industry is at a crossroad. On election day voters will consider an amendment to the Florida constitution that permits residents of Dade and Broward counties to subsequently determine whether to allow slot machines at Calder Race Course, Miami jai-alai, and Flagler dog track in Dade County, and Gulfstream, Hollywood dog track, Pompano harness track, and Dania jai-alai in Broward.

"I can't tell you how important passage of this amendment is," said Dick Hancock, executive vice president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners Association. "I hate to think of the long-range consequences if it doesn't pass."

Neither Gov. Jeb Bush nor many in the Florida legislature have been sympathetic to Florida competing as a breeding, training, and racing state with states that offer slots or casinos at racetracks.

The Seminole Indian tribes operate two Hard Rock Casinos that are near racetracks. One is in Tampa, in the marketing area of Tampa Bay Downs, and the other just a few miles from both Calder Race Course and Gulfstream Park. Both handle hundreds of millions of dollars via Class 2 gaming - bingo and video lottery terminals. These casinos also cater to poker players and sponsor four-figure tournaments. The Hard Rock Casinos are not the only Seminole developments. There are more sprinkled in the southern half of the state and more are on the drawing boards.

Florida also has a profitable "cruise to nowhere" fleet of floating casinos. These ships, which leave from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and other harbors around the state, offer Las Vegas-style gambling once the ship reaches three miles from shore. Neither these floating casinos nor the Native American casinos pay any state taxes.

Dade and Broward County parimutuel operations have allied themselves under the banner of Floridians for a Level Playing Field. A war chest of some $14 million has been gathered to promote slots at the parimutuels as way to raise an estimated $500 million in revenue for education, and, of course, to generate income for tracks, breeders, and owners.

Said Hancock: "It boggles me that there is no public uproar over the non-revenue-generating operations of the cruise ships and the Indian casinos, but there is when it comes to the legal and established parimutuels to compete on their home grounds - parimutuels, I should add, which will earmark much needed revenue for Florida education."

Should racinos become a reality in Florida, Hancock said, daily purse distribution at Thoroughbred tracks could rise to about $450,000 per day; the Thoroughbred population would rise to 46,000 from the current 37,000; and a new racetrack could be built in the Ocala area.

"There's roughly a $3 billion Thoroughbred investment in Florida that would, we believe, climb to $5 billion or more if this amendment passes," he said.

Going into the final hours of this election season, constitutional amendment Article X, Section 19 (No. 4 on the statewide ballot) is too close to call. It seems likely that it will pass in the populous urban counties, but there is religious opposition to the amendment in the rural counties. Many of the daily tours that leave those rural counties for a tour of the gaming tables of Louisiana and Mississippi or a bus ride to the docks of cruise ships have no doubt made many former opponents into clandestine supporters. Amendment 4 needs all the help it can get.