Posted on Sat, Nov. 12, 2011
Put your bets on slow hermit crabs and fast cops
By Fred Grimm
It’s a parallel universe up there in Gretna. While we’re getting ourselves stirred up in Miami over the notion of a $3 billion casino resort next to Biscayne Bay, the folks in Gretna, just a ways down Highway 90 south of the Georgia line, figure barrel racing will bring high rollers and economic salvation to their piney hills.
Not that there’s anything new about wagering on barrel racing, an old rodeo pursuit involving Marlboro men in Stetson hats, whooping and hollering and coaxing feisty ponies through figure-eight configurations on a course festooned with oil drums. No doubt cowboys have long been betting their stirrups or chaps or six-shooters or chaws of Redman Tobacco or rights to the girl in the calico dress (ah, shucks, Miss Lucy) on the outcome.
But until Gretna introduced this countrified version of gambling fever, state government wasn’t much interested in taking a cut of the rodeo handle. The concept of barrel racing as a licensed pari-mutuel, that’s new. At least that’s what the National Barrel Racing Association says.
Of course, the owners of Gretna Racing LLC’s affection for rodeo racing is about as heartfelt as Broward developer Ron Bergeron’s sudden desire to bring jai alai to Weston. Bergeron’s lawyer filed a 42-page application with the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering last week. He wants a permit to build a new fronton out on the lonely reaches of U.S. 27 at a time when jai alai audiences have become about as sparse as the Rick Scott fan club. Statewide, the jai alai handle last year shrank to barely half what it was just five years ago. (Dania Jai Alai just unveiled remodeling plans that downsize the fronton arena from 5,000 seats to 1,800.) For that matter, wagering on all of Florida’s pari-mutuels, the entire panting menagerie of racing horses, dogs and guys with baskets on their arms, has fallen 43 percent in the last decade.
Of course, nobody really cares a whit about that stuff. It’s all about slot machines. Last week, the county commissioners of God-fearing Gadsden County voted unanimously to hold a referendum on whether to allow slots at the Gretna barrel racetrack. The proposal would allow 2,000, which would amount to 242 more slot machines than Gretna has residents.
It was a rush job. The Tallahassee Democrat reported that Gadsden’s civic leaders, nudged by Gretna Racing’s lobbyists, slapped the referendum on the Jan. 31 ballot to take advantage of the hubbub over gambling in the incoming legislative session. (Over 100 state capital lobbyists have been hired by various gaming companies.) Maybe they figure nobody will notice, what with all the yelling about South Florida gambling palaces, if Gretna slipped a couple of thousand slot machines next to the poker room and wrecked the state’s $250 million-a-year competition-limiting compact with the Seminole Tribe.
Barrel racing and the betting windows open Dec. 1, with less controversy thereabouts, in the poorest county in Florida, than the Genting resort casino proposal has generated down in sophisticated Miami. (Gretna, by the way, is much closer to Havana than Miami, but it’s that other Havana, the Florida version, population 1,703, 17.5 miles east on Highway 12, just north of Scotland.)
All this, even though legislators from north Florida counties crawling with red bugs and Baptist preachers can hardly open their mouths without declaring that they’re dead set against “any expansion of gambling.”
They’ve been saying it for years, yet somehow gambling keeps expanding. Florida now has thoroughbred racing and harness racing and quarter horse racing and poker rooms and Lotto and PowerBall and gambling cruises to nowhere and racinos full of chirping slot machines and old Indian bingo halls evolved into full-blown casinos and a thousand utterly unregulated strip mall gambling parlors known euphemistically as Internet cafes or senior citizen arcades or, down this way, maquinitas.
And while the folks from north and central Florida have been railing about the proposal to allow three major resort casinos down here in Gomorrah, no one paid much attention last month when the state issued a gaming permit for barrel racing in the Bible Belt.
That sounds suspiciously like an expansion of gambling. The Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association sure thinks so. The association filed a complaint with the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering last week charging that “recognition of barrel racing as a pari-mutuel activity would represent the establishment of an entirely new category of pari-mutuel wagering which is not authorized by statute and has been neither proposed or adopted as a rule.” Meanwhile, Hamilton Jai Alai and Poker in Jasper, population 1,780, another town jammed up against the Georgia border, has applied for its own barrel racing permit. “It’s the wild west — at a level I have never seen,’’ a lobbyist for Miami’s Mardi Gras Casino told The Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas last week. With barrel racing, the wild west analogy becomes all the more apt.
The quarter horse crowd claims that lowly barrel racing is just a cheaper vehicle for Gretna Racing to qualify for poker rooms and slot machines. Of course, the thoroughbred folks said the same thing about quarter horse tracks. They’re both right. Gambling conglomerates, if they could get slots and card rooms and table games, would happily reduce their pari-mutuels to hermit crab races. In South Florida, we should consider converting I-95 into a pari-mutuel setting, betting on the races between the Miami Police Department and the Florida Highway Patrol. (I’m down for $10 on FHP.)
And if the Legislature won’t allow us a glittering $3 billion sin-palace on Biscayne Bay, we could always convince the cowboys down on South Beach to mount up and give barrel racing a go. (I’m down for $10 on the Miami Beach PD).
Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/11/12/v-print/2499166/put-your-bets-on-slow-hermit-crabs.html#ixzz1dbvlOhyP