In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Fakery and schemes abound at pari-mutuels

Once, at a Dolphins game, watching from the nosebleed seats, I found myself distracted by two young guys in the next row clutching fistfuls of dollar bills, their antics more interesting than the dismal excuse for football down below. They were betting with one another on the minutia of the game. With each punt, they wagered on the hang time.

Who knows? One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Four Mississippi. Maybe I was witnessing Florida’s next official form of pari-mutuel wagering.

Hang-time gambling surely ranks no more bizarre than hankie-drop racing, a gambling diversion approved last month by that zany gang down at the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.

The PMW decided that hankie drops, 100-yard dashes featuring two animals, vaguely described as horses, could be substituted for the oval track and traditional quarter horse races described on Gretna Racing’s license. The cheapie two-horse gallops, the state agency decided, gave the Gadsden County pari-mutuel the necessary smidgen of loophole legality the track would need to operate lucrative sidelines — poker, simulcast racing and, one day, slot machines.

Gretna conjured up the hankie drop after an administrative judge tossed the track’s PMW-approved scheme to pass off rodeo barrel racing (two mounted ponies looping around three barrels and racing back to the gate) as a legitimate parimutuel competition.

That the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering signed off on both these anomalies says something about Florida’s anarchic approach to legalized gambling. While the state legislature has resisted, with mock horror, so-called “destination casinos” uncoupled to horses, dogs or men with baskets strapped to their wrists (as if the Seminoles were still running bingo games and alligator wrestling behind the old smoke shops), pari-mutuels have deteriorated into decrepit facades for gambling parlors.

Last Monday, the state legislature received the first of a three-part study on Florida’s sorry gambling policies from New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming Group. The Spectrum consultants captured enough of the state’s downright stupid gaming anomalies that even the most obstinate legislator should want to discard this mess and come up with a comprehensive rethink.

Hankie drop racing seems majestic compared to the fakery allowed at Ocala Jai-Alai. State law requires that a jai-alai operator stage a certain number of performances each year to maintain his gambling licenses. (And to allow the subsidiary poker rooms and, in South Florida, slots.) Spectrum reported, “Last year, Ocala stretched the letter of the law when it hired two locals who played each other over and over to comply with the minimum-performance law.” General Manager Brian Matthews explained to the Spectrum investigators “that he had no choice but to run jai-alai the way he did because it loses so much money, adding, ‘We can’t get anyone to watch it’.” He added, “If this was just jai-alai, we would have been closed long ago.”

The report found that Hamilton Jai-Alai “relies on a four-person jai alai roster” including a father and his son combination. Hamilton, to meet the requirement for 100 jai-alai performances a year necessary to retain a poker room license, features these same four players playing one another over and over again, from March until June, until they hit the magic number. Manager Glenn Richards told Spectrum, “People call it a joke, and I cannot disagree,” he said. “It is either do this or shut the door. We cannot get anyone to watch this anymore.”

Nor is anyone placing any bets. Spectrum said Hamilton Jai-Alai’s total handle for fiscal year 2012 was two bucks.

The total annual handle for all six of the state’s jai-alai frontons has fallen 91 percent since 1990, 96 percent for live performances. Total paid attendance in 1990 reached 3.9 million. In 2012, jai-alai attendance fell to 9,068. Last year, the six operators lost $25.6 million in this insane pretense that jai-alai was still a viable entertainment in Florida.

Greyhound racing was only slightly less bleak, with the handle down 67 percent since 1990. “It is a dying sport,” Michael Glenn, general manager of the Palm Beach Kennel Club told Spectrum.

“We can see it by our live handle. The older folks are not being replaced,” said Jamie Shelton of Jacksonville Greyhound Racing told Spectrum. “There are just too many other things to do out there today. Watching a greyhound race is not at the top of most people’s agenda.”

To maintain the facade, Melbourne Greyhound track has proposed running two-dog races with the mutts picked from “a two-kennel roster under the same ownership.” Greyhound racing, Melbourne style, will become as competitive as professional wrestling.

At the state’s only harness track, Isle Casino and Racing at Pompano, it was not much more encouraging. Spectrum reported, “We toured the Pompano facility on May 20, 2013. Only the ground floor of the racetrack was open. The facility is in a state of disrepair.”

The report said Pompano plans to close the grandstand area this summer, “which will force patrons to watch live races from a row of seats set up outside the casino. That places spectators by the turn as horses approach the finish line, making it difficult from that angle for them to see who wins.”

Obviously, the management would just as soon race hamsters as hassle with horses.

The state’s three thoroughbred races tracks still offer an authentic product, although the handle for live races has fallen 54 percent since 1990. And Hialeah, running quarter horses, has a grand $842.9 million plan to bring the majestic old track back to glory. Owner John Brunetti promised Spectrum that “racing will be integrated into the complex so that it will never become an afterthought, which he believes is the case at too many Florida pari-mutuel facilities.”

That last bit from Brunetti was an understatement of mighty proportions in Florida where, instead of adopting a studied, comprehensive approach to gaming, instead of deciding what sort of gambling venues would be in the best interest of the state, pari-mutuel racing has been allowed to fester as a mere pretense.

The state pretends that anachronistic pari-mutuels operations aren’t inconvenient excuses for gambling conglomerates to run their poker rooms and slot machines.

Just as the state pretended, until this past session of the legislature, that Internet cafes and game rooms and maquinitas running out of storefront casinos were no different than children’s game arcades.

Just as the state pretended, right up until the moment that SunCruz Casino fleet magnate Gus Boulis was gunned down by mobsters in Fort Lauderdale, that there was nothing hinky about Florida’s gambling cruises to nowhere.

And now the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering pretends that the hankie drop is a worthy substitute for the sport of kings. While our state legislators pretend that Florida gaming is not a mendacious mess.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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