11/10/2004 1:00AM

Slots on horizon stir hope

Gary Rothstein/EquiPhotos
Cherokee Breeze, trained by Bill Croll, became the first horse to train over Gulfstream Park's new 1 1/8-mile track when he galloped on Wednesday. The turf course has grown in nicely and is expected to be ready when the 2005 meet opens Jan. 3.

MIAMI - Almost $1.3 million in purses will be distributed during Saturday's 13-race Florida Million card, but such riches are an anomaly compared to the daily overnight fare at Calder. With the purse situation here having deteriorated recently, the passage of Amendment 4 on Election Day may turn out to be a savior for everybody involved with south Florida racing on a year-round basis.

Amendment 4 was a statewide referendum that authorized a second ballot in Dade and Broward counties on whether to legalize slot machines at all parimutuel facilities in those counties, including Calder and Gulfstream Park. The second ballot is expected to be held in March. The initial referendum was approved with 75 percent of the vote in Dade and 60 percent in Broward.

"Both Gulfstream and Calder, but particularly Calder, were in serious trouble if Amendment 4 had not passed," said Phil Combest, vice president of the Florida Division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "This is the first time in quite a while the horsemen, breeders, and both racetracks were all unified on a single goal. Hopefully that spirit will carry over even beyond the slots to help improve Florida racing in the future."

Combest is hopeful that if all goes as expected with the next election and in the legislature, that some slot machines could be installed at Calder as early as the fall of 2005 and that slots would be in "reasonably full operation" by the time Gulfstream opens for the 2006 campaign.

"We've been told that slots could possibly double the size of purses at Calder," said Combest. "That might be a bit optimistic. I'd be thrilled if it improved them 50 percent or a little more."

Because of the purse schedule at Calder, many locally based trainers split their stables and also raced at other tracks during the past several summers. Others have been making plans to leave for tracks with higher purses. Longtime Calder mainstay Eddie Plesa Jr. had been making plans to relocate the bulk of his strong stable and his family until Amendment 4 passed.

"Life is good again," Plesa said when asked about the effects of Amendment 4. "I'm seeing smiles on the backstretch and an optimism back here that hasn't been present for a long time. Speaking just personally, this is welcome news not only for me and my family but all the people who work for me too.

"I had already contacted a real estate agent in Pennsylvania and had plans to go up there at the end of the month to look at property. But I don't want to leave here if I don't have to and I won't as long as the economic conditions become favorable, which should be the case if we get the slots at both tracks."

Trainer Tim Hills makes his permanent home in south Florida but spends his summers based in New Jersey. That situation could change, he said, if purses become more competitive at Calder.

"I certainly would consider moving the majority of my stable back to south Florida on a permanent basis and could have a normal life again," Hills said from his Monmouth Park tack room on Wednesday. "In fact I think you'd see a lot more trainers, including some high-profile barns, be attracted to racing in south Florida on a year-round basis if the purse structure became comparable to other areas."