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Genting Casino's Gulfstream Merger Plan Is Flush With Problems

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GENTING MIAMI CASINO

A Hallandale Beach pari-mutuel and an international gambling giant have become partners in a new casino endeavor, but if their chances were quantified in terms of a poker hand, perhaps their next move would be "fold."

Officials at Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino and Malaysia-based Genting said last week that they want to open a casino in Miami, using a state pari-mutuel permit Gulfstream owns.

The No. 1 challenge is, the state says the casino permit is good only for Broward County, not Miami-Dade. And No. 2 is that pari-mutuel permits allows for slots only where there is horse racing, dog racing or jai-alai -- not miles away.

Hialeah Park owner John Brunetti and others are critical of Genting, which had an attempt to create destination casinos die in the Florida legislature in 2012, then later aborted the idea of approving casinos via a state amendment.

"They couldn't get in through the front door so they're trying the back door," Brunetti said.

Gulfstream and Genting representatives say their plan is legal, although Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo said he expects challenges.

"We understand that other facilities would oppose it," Ritvo said. "No one likes more competition."

The news comes against the backdrop of a $400,000 survey commissioned by the Florida Senate and subsequent statewide listening tour, as legislators consider what direction gambling in Florida should take.

Gulfstream's situation

Gulfstream has two state permits: One allows Gulfstream to conduct its usual racing card. Gulfstream's non-profit Thoroughbred Aftercare Retirement Program also has a permit, and in July and December Gulfstream conducted 150-yard races on a piece of their property that juts into Aventura. Those races kept that permit active, Gulfstream lawyers say.

But the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering ruled the permit is for Broward County only. And other South Florida casinos also have more than one permit, and none has ever succeeded in opening a slots parlor away from their facility, an idea known in legislative circles as portability.

Lawmakers note that if Gulfstream could simply move its permit to downtown Miami, then other casino interests, such as the Hollywood Diplomat, the Fountainbleu and the parent company of the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, also could open casinos simply by buying a permit from a pari-mutuel.

Meanwhile, Ritvo says that by partnering with Genting, the non-profit will receive money to care for horses after they retire from racing, to benefit disabled jockeys and increase purses.

Ritvo called the agreement "the single most important thing that's happened to thoroughbred racing in a long time. This will benefit the entire racing industry."

But Brunetti called the agreement "a Trojan horse" to the racing industry.

"Gulfstream is playing with the wrong people, while Genting is throwing a few bones to the horsemen and a few more bones to everyone else to get them on their side," Brunetti said.

Genting's challenge

The $47 billion Malaysian company bought the 14-acre Miami Herald property in 2011, and later released futuristic photos of what a proposed casino there would look like.

As a view on how much money can be had, one need look only at Macau, a special administrative region in China that does seven times the business of Las Vegas. But Genting has no piece of the casino action there. So part of the plan would be to import high-rolling Asians, as well as South Americans and those in the northeastern United States to Florida. Genting representatives said this week the casino would be advertised to the high rollers in its 6 million-person database, and while current Florida laws would allow for only blackjack and poker, Genting launched a casino cruise to Bimini this year that has full casino offerings, including a sports book. A casino-hotel would give passengers a place to stay.

Genting's Christian Goode told the News Service of Florida that the partnership with Gulfstream "is just one opportunity or potential opportunity. If it's not viable, then we'll pursue other means."

Genting's Bimini SuperFast ship has had bad PR recently. Passengers must be tendered onto Bimini island because a jetty isn't finished. Bimini's waters are rough in the winter, so the tender hasn't been able to reach the island on some days, canceling cruises and in some cases stranding return passengers in Bimini. Meanwhile, Genting is involved in a federal lawsuit in an attempt to have more foreign labor working the ship.

That all provides fodder for NoCasinos Inc., a group fighting gambling expansion.

"Legislators should take note of the games the industry plays every time gambling is expanded. When the gambling industry is given an inch, it takes a mile," read a recent NoCasinos release.

The legislature

State Sen. Gwen Margolis, a member of the Senate committee on gaming, sent a letter on Thursday to Sen. President Don Gaetz decrying the Miami casino idea, pointing out the area is already clogged with two performing arts centers and the AmericanAirlines Arena.

Margolis noted that in 2004 the state approved a constitutional amendment permitting slot machines only at existing pari-mutuel facilities in Broward and Miami/Dade counties.

"They knew exactly where gambling would be located, and further expansion must include voter participation," she wrote.

State Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, who is president of the National Council of Legislators of Gaming States, which meets this weekend at The Diplomat in Hollywood, says:

"That fact that the news of the deal came out like this (from the two parties, rather than the state) shows the legislature needs to take the lead on this," he said. "I'm not opposed to destination casinos, but we would be doing a disservice to the pari-mutuels and everyone to not deal with it."

There's also the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which has a five-year, $1 billion agreement with the state for exclusivity on blackjack and other table games. The tribe has opposed destination casinos and argues that its profits go to their members, who spend the money in Florida.

Waldman argues for a gaming commission, and is opposed to a Republican idea to require votes on casino expansion.

"It's also about a holistic approach," Waldman said. "We are elected to make decisions. We're not here to punt."

Nsortal@SouthFlorida.com ___

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