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Race tracks feel jilted by state's gambling deal with Seminoles

The Seminole Tribe of Florida gets to keep running its lucrative casinos with the same games. The state gets a guaranteed $1 billion in new revenue and maybe $500 million more over the next five years. And South Florida racetracks and jai alai frontons get a lower tax rate on their slot machines.

But Tampa Bay area tracks say the pending gambling agreement between the tribe and the state leaves them out in the cold.

"It's devastating,'' says Vera Filipelli, spokeswoman for St. Petersburg's Derby Lane greyhound track. "I think we all got sold down the river.''

The tribe met Wednesday morning and ratified the gambling compact, which provides exclusive rights to certain casino games in return for sharing revenues with the state. House and Senate approval could come as soon as next week.

The Seminoles could operate card games such as blackjack and baccarat for five years at five of its seven Florida casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa. It could continue Las Vegas-style slots at all seven casinos, facing competition from tracks and frontons only in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

As a condition of approving the agreement, legislators must also pass a bill to help out the parimutuels. But the biggest benefit went to South Florida: a reduction in the tax rate on slots from 50 percent to 35 percent.

The compact would allow 19 parimutuels outside Miami-Dade and Broward — including Derby Lane and Tampa Bay Downs horse track in Oldsmar — up to 350 bingo-style machines, vending machines that dispense lottery tickets and historic racing machines.

Gambling experts dismiss the racing machines, which let players bet on taped dog and horse races, as serious competition.

"It's hard to see how popular they'll be when a customer can play slot machines that give them a result every five seconds,'' said Joe Weinert, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming, a consulting firm near Atlantic City.

The Seminoles for years had bingo-based games with spinning wheels and flashing lights. But the compact mandates that games for the parimutuels can't look like slot machines. "We don't even know machines like that exist,'' said Margo Flynn, vice president for marketing at Tampa Bay Downs.

Poker rooms at the tracks will get a boost from new rules linked to the compact. Now restricted to 12 hours a day, the rooms will be allowed to operate 18 hours on weekdays and around the clock on weekends. Limits of $5 per bet will be lifted.

None of the changes will help parimutuels compete against the array of casino games at Seminole Hard Rock, said Filipelli. "People come in here looking for slots,'' she says. "And we don't have them.''

A year ago, the Seminole Tribe talked about spending "multiple billions'' to expand its Florida properties if the state agreed to a compact. Plans called for building the biggest hotel in the Tampa Bay area beside the Tampa casino, up to 22 stories with as many as 1,000 rooms.

Construction also included 50,000 square feet of meeting space, several restaurants and a music hall seating 1,500 to 2,000.

Tribal leaders will review the Florida projects in light of current financial conditions if the compact receives final approvals in Tallahassee and from the Department of the Interior in Washington, said Jim Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming. "Tampa has done well for us,'' he said Wednesday. "We'd like to re-evaluate it.''

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Race tracks feel jilted by state's gambling deal with Seminoles 04/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 8, 2010 1:26am]
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