Slots OK At Florida Racetrack Affects Other Counties

The First District Court of Appeals' recent ruling that slots be allowed at Gretna Racing in Gadsden County, Florida, could impact the five other counties where voters have approved slots at parimutuels. Currently only the Seminole Tribe and tracks in the southern part of the state are allowed to offer slots.

In a 2-1 decision, the First District Court of Appeals recently ordered the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation to allow slot machines at Gretna Racing in Gadsden County, operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. The judges said the slots were allowable in Gadsden County under the same law that allowed the current gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Currently only the Seminole tribe and tracks in the southern part of the state are allowed to offer slots.

The decision could impact other counties where voters have approved slots at parimutuels: Brevard, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington. Only the Gadsden and Palm Beach county tracks have applied for slot-machine licenses. Palm Beach Kennel Club’s application for a slots license was denied.

Voters approved slot machines soon after the Gretna facility opened in December 2011 with parimutuel betting on barrel racing, simulcast betting and a poker room. The poker room has remained open but the property’s license for parimutuel barrel racing and other races was revoked by state gaming regulators in May 2013.

State regulators argued that the Department of Business and Professional Regulation denied the racetrack a slots license because it “is not authorized to issue a slot machine license to a parimutuel facility in a county which holds a countywide referendum to approve such machines, absent a statutory or constitutional provision enacted after July 1, 2010, authorizing such a referendum.”

But two of the appellate judges agreed with lawyers for the Gretna horse racetrack, which argued that the statute does not contain the word “enacted.” The judges also rejected the state’s argument that counties outside of Miami-Dade and Broward would need the legislature’s authorization or a constitutional change to offer slot machines.

Attorney General Pam Bondi and lawyers for existing tracks with slots are reviewing the appeals court’s decision. The appellate judges asked in their ruling for the Florida Supreme Court to make the final decision in the case.

If the ruling stands, it could affect part of the state’s compact with the Seminoles, giving the tribe exclusive rights to operate banked card games at most of its facilities in exchange for $1 billion over five years. Under the agreement, the tribe can stop its payments to the state if parimutuels outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties start offering slots. Lawmakers and the Seminoles are negotiating the provision, which will expire in July unless the legislature reauthorizes it or writes a new pact.

Palm Beach Kennel Club lobbyist Brian Ballard said of the recent ruling, “This absolutely strengthens our hand with regard to the upcoming negotiations on the gaming bill, vis-a-vis the compact. It’s exactly what we were told we were getting five years ago by the Senate. The court agrees with that. So we’re optimistic.”

Former Gulfstream Park lobbyist Marc Dunbar, who owns a minority stake in Gretna Racing, said Gretna always was meant to be as a full service entertainment center. “We’d be able to build a Wind Creek-type casino on that property,” he said. The Poarch Creeks own 60 percent of the $20 million Gretna facility plus Wind Creek Casino in Atmore. Jay Dorris, president and chief executive officer of Poarch affiliate PCI Gaming, said, “Within five years we could build a resort casino with hotels, an equestrian center, quarter-horse racing and 2,000 slot machines, a $200-million-plus development with 800 to 1,000 employees.”