It is a typical early summer afternoon in South Florida. Pedestrian traffic on the strips along the beaches in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood is heavy even in the off-season. Las Olas Boulevard is bustling with shoppers. Sooner or later, it will rain and though there is no live racing on this particular day, getting a bet down is not a problem.
Less than a dozen horseplayers are present in the simulcast room at Gulfstream Park, which as racetracks go is a nice mall, and only a few gamblers are playing slot machines in the casino. Restaurants and retail stores that are now part of the winter racing experience at Gulfstream suffer in summer for want of clientele and the question is raised: Why is there a Pottery Barn at a racetrack?
Twenty years ago, when pari-mutuel wagering was the only legal gambling activity in south Florida, the market was overcrowded. Calder Race Course, Hialeah Park and Gulfstream Park shared a year-round thoroughbred season. Pompano Park called itself, “the winter capital of harness racing” and really was. At least three tracks conducted greyhound racing and gamblers so inclined had a choice of jai-alai frontons. If the consensus was that there was too much competition for the gambling dollar in South Florida, nobody imagined this.
Less than a mile from a nearly abandoned Gulfstream, what was once the Hollywood Greyhound Track is now the Mardi Gras Casino. A few miles to the north, there is a poker room at Dania Jai Alai and harness racing is almost an afterthought at the Isle of Capri casino at Pompano Beach. To the south, a casino is in development at Hialeah Park. To the west, there is a casino at Calder and the Seminole tribe operates a sprawling gambling enterprise at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, which functions independent of a pari-mutuel component, dominates the market and at least on this afternoon is uniquely busy.
Intense competition in Florida has muted the windfall experienced by tracks in other states in which alternative gaming has been introduced at racetracks. With the exceptions of Las Vegas, Reno and Atlantic City, south Florida is home to what is perhaps the nation’s most dense, competitive gambling market and perhaps a foreshadowing of the future elsewhere.
The gaming markets beyond Florida are fast becoming more and more competitive as state governments confront daunting deficits and rush to the easy way out. Federal restrictions on tribal gaming have been eased, a dire concern for operators of racetracks in states that permit both pari-mutuel and alternative gaming partnerships.
Alternative gaming, widely seen as a necessary evil by operators of racetracks, is fast becoming the tail that wags the dog, the primary source of revenue at racetracks in casino-compliant states. In every state in which casinos have been joined with racing enterprises, slot machines and video lottery terminals have become the driving economic force and in many cases the thing that keeps the racing alive. Eventually, lawmakers in these states may come to see racing as a not-altogether-necessary evil. Inevitably, these same politicians will permit tribal gambling enterprises dispensed from restrictions on table games to compete directly with racetracks.
Because of slots, racing in Pennsylvania thrives. Delaware, the first state to approve slots, would likely have seen the extinction of racing without casinos. This is probably also true of West Virginia, Louisiana, New Mexico and Iowa. Casinos have saved harness racing in New York, keeps Finger Lakes viable and another, at Aqueduct, due to be operational by year’s end will transform the tracks operated by the New York Racing Association. Expansion of gambling in any of these markets, however, will adversely impact the racetracks the original laws were designed to help.
Were he not thwarted, the last governor of New York would have happily seen a license granted to s Native American tribe from Wisconsin that sought to operate a full-blown casino in the state’s Catskill region. In the current political climate, there will most assuredly be efforts launched by any number of tribes to expand gambling enterprises, some at the expense of racetracks and many proposals directed at compliant, short-sighted lawmakers. Any market is dependent upon a finite amount of available money and full-service tribal casinos free of restriction enjoy a distinct advantage over racetrack-based facilities. Such expansion of gaming in any market, wherever it may be, has the potential to turn almost anyplace into South Florida.
Originally Posted on ESPN