Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino starts a quarter horse racing season Saturday — but don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
The entire card: One race.
The past few months have brought a barrage of quirks in the pari-mutuel industry, with everything from barrel racing in Gretna to new jai-alai permits in Miami, and Gulfstream officials say their activation of a quarterhorse permit they’ve held for years is related to that.
“We were advised by counsel that if we didn’t exercise the permit there was a possibility of losing it during the upcoming legislative session,” Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo said via a statement. The state approved Gulfstream’s request last week.
Legislators have commented that pari-mutuel reform is in order. Gretna, about 25 miles west of Tallahassee, began barrel racing earlier this month as a first step toward getting slots — although no one has ever bet before on barrel racing, which is performed mostly at rodeos. In Broward County, a lawyer applied for a permit to build a jai-alai fronton in Weston and in Palm Beach County, county commissioners approved a referendum to add slots.
The developments happen as two legislators try to get a bill passed that would bring up to three destination casinos to the state — although sponsors Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, point out that much of their bill is also aimed at creating a gambling commission and getting the recent moves throughout the state under control.
Activating the quarter horse permit also enables Gulfstream to add 2,000 more slots, although the casino so far has given no indication that it’s eager to do so. Gulfstream’s thoroughbred racing permit allows the Hallandale Beach facility to operate up to 2,000 slots, and recent state records show Gulfstream only has about 860 running. They’re averaging about $150 per machine, well behind the Isle Casino & Racing in Pompano Beach, Calder and Magic City in Miami and just ahead of Mardi Gras Casino. The Seminole Tribe of Florida also operates two casinos near Gulfstream, and although they don’t release their revenues, industry experts say their haul also easily surpasses Gulfstream.
The quarter horse races will be in the late afternoon Saturday, after Gulfstream completes its thoroughbred card. The permit Gulfstream is activating calls for a 50-50 split of races between quarter horses and thoroughbreds, so the track is adding a thoroughbred race Jan. 1 to its card to meet the requirements of activating the permit.
The only full racing meet using quarterhorses — which are regarded as much more inexpensive than thoroughbreds to maintain — is being conducted at Hialeah Park in Miami Dade-County. Hialeah Park won a court case to operate slots and is in its second-year of quarter horse racing, after which the company plans to open a casino.
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NICK SORTAL began playing 3-card “gut” and “Indian poker” on high school band trips, moved on to “night baseball” and “pass the trash” during a Dr. Pepper-infused midnight game in the 1980s at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and now play in a regular neighborhood Hold ‘Em game in Plantation. I have been given the assignment of writing about the gambling life in South Florida casinos for the Sun-Sentinel…which means sitting around watching poker on TV now counts as research.