05/01/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Day at the Racino

These changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes
nothing remains quite the same.

- Jimmy Buffett

I spent much of my childhood at race tracks. Usually not nice race tracks.

Although we would make an occasional journey to Keeneland or Churchill Downs, most of the trips were to run-down facilities, such as the old Latonia race course, River Downs in Cincinnati and a really awful harness racing track in Lebanon, Ohio.

I watched lots of broken-down people, in run-down buildings, betting on broken-down horses.

Not a pretty site.

My home state of Kentucky has been knocking around the idea of allowing slot machines at race tracks. Also being discussed was changing the Kentucky constitution to allow destination, resort-style casinos.

And I've been to a number of casinos with slot machines, too.

But I had never been to a race track with slot machines -- at least until last week.

I decided to go to South Florida to compare and contrast. I spent a day at Gulfstream Park, a race track with slots (commonly called a "racino") and then spent a couple of days at a casino resort.

I suspected I would like the Seminole Hard Rock Casino and Resort, and I did. My findings from that experience will be the subject of a future column.

I also suspected I would hate having slot machines at race tracks. I was wrong.

I'm not ready to join the race track casino advocates, but now I have a more open mind about the subject.

I might be more easily convinced of the merits of racinos, depending upon who owned them, how the tax revenue they generated was being spent and whether a serious effort was made to deal with addicted gamblers.

Gulfstream Park has had some financial ups and downs, but is really a nice-looking track. Especially on a 70 degree day, hosting a guy who left a foot of snow behind in Kentucky.

I got interested in Gulfstream when I saw they had just opened an extremely upscale mall. It is attached to the race track and casino areas. The idea is to get the shopper or diner interested in racing, the race fan interested in the casino and the casino player interested in all of the above. The "race-casino" has slot machines and poker rooms.

I got to spend a couple of hours with Gulfstream's casino boss, Steve Calabro. Calabro is a bundle of energy and enthusiasm. He reminds of the "on top of it" casino boss portrayed by Robert DeNiro in the movie Casino, with a little of Joe Pesci's manic energy from that film thrown in for good measure.

A 29-year veteran of the gambling industry, Steve was remarkably candid about the ups and downs of racinos.

He showed me slot machines that appealed to every demographic and income category. He showed me how the race track, bar, restaurants and casinos were all hopping on a Wednesday afternoon.

He dented my stereotype that slots at race tracks were strictly targeting poor people.

Many people are opposed to gambling on moral or religious grounds. If you are, nothing is going to change your mind.

I'm in a different category. I've never been opposed to gambling from a moral basis. My father was a professional gambler and I got to see how gambling, for people who can afford to lose, was a great source of recreation and entertainment.

I just think gambling is a poor way to spend money. Just like I think using credit cards or buying a brand new car on credit is a lousy way to spend money.

Since I don't play video games of any kind, slot machines don't interest me.

I really liked the Gulfstream Park operation, but not every race track is as well-kept or well-located as Gulfstream.

I live near the Keeneland race track in Kentucky. It attracts a crowd that ranges from captains of industry to working class people. Everyone there seems to have a good time.

That is what I want a racino to be. Gulfstream fit that vision, but I don't know if racinos in other locations meet that standard.

Casino gambling, even race track slot machines, has far better odds for the gambler than lotteries, keno and a lot of other sucker games that states have already legalized.

I'm going to devote a future column to problem gambling, an issue that keeps me from completely embracing casinos.

I can buy into an argument that people should be able to spend their entertainment dollars however they want. We have problem shoppers, problem eaters and problem credit card users. No one seems too worried about them. But having seen lots of broken-down gamblers and wasted lives, the issue of problem gambling is never too far from my mind.

I have some ideas to help those addicts. Any discussion of expanded gambling needs to put them on top of the agenda, instead of treating them as an after-thought.

Also, before I embrace casinos, I want to see who owns them and who benefits. One of the things that came from my tour of the Seminole Hard Rock facility was learning what a boon casino gambling has been to many Native American tribes.

If the profits from casinos make life better for those in the shadows of society, I might be for them. If the goal is to let rich people and corporations get even richer, I'm not going to buy in. But, at least now, I'm open to hearing proposals. I wasn't before.

My trip to Gulfstream Park was a "change in latitude" that resulted in a "change in attitude."

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC is one of the world's leading authorities in helping people deal with "Big Money" issues.McNay is an award winning, syndicated financial columnist and Huffington Post Contributor. You can read more about Don at