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Florida's First District Court of Appeal opens door to expanded gambling

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The writing is on the wall for the expansion of gambling in the state of Florida. Last weekend, my father and I attended the Rolex 24 at Daytona, where one of the larger sponsors was the Hard Rock Hotel Daytona. It will be the largest hotel project in the history of Daytona Beach, which is saying quite a bit, and is being developed with a massive amount of convention center floor space. Now, everyone knows that, although Daytona is a hotbed of conventions of all size, that the idea of drawing convention goers is not the primary reason to include so much empty floor space.

Hard Rock Hotels all over the world are known for their lavish accommodations, their truly outstanding dining options, and thirdly, and probably most importantly, their large and well-appointed casinos. The two other Hard Rock properties in the state of Florida are owned, operated, and run by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and make most of their income in the casino business. At present, the hotel in Daytona would not be able to operate such a gaming operation, as casino gambling is limited to South Florida and Indian casinos only.

Oral arguments heard by Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal on Jan. 14 questioned whether Florida gambling regulators changed state policy when they approved a contrived form of barrel racing as a pari-mutuel activity for the first time without enabling legislation or regulatory hearings, THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA's Dara Kam reported.

In a terse 85-page ruling last year, Administrative Law Judge John G. Van Laningham said that, by issuing a license to Gretna Racing LLC in 2011, Florida's Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering effectively created a new Rule dictating what constitutes a "horse race" without going through the necessary rulemaking process.

Steve Menton, a lawyer representing the horsemen, said the agency's decision to legitimize barrel racing as a pari-mutuel activity had far-reaching implications because the horse racing permits allow tracks to operate card rooms and could open the door for slot machines.

"The ramifications of what is happening here as a result of the introduction of a new pari-mutuel activity further highlights the idea that this . . . represents a significant policy shift which is going to result in the expansion of gaming in different areas and it's all being done without going through the rule-making process," Menton said.

Owners of the Gretna facility, which also has a cardroom, are hoping their activities will open the door for more lucrative slot machines. Voters in Gadsden County, where the track is located just west of Tallahassee, approved a referendum that would allow the machines, but the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering last month turned down Gretna's application for slots. The track is appealing that decision.

After the 1st DCA hearing, THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA's Dara Kam also reported that "pari-mutuel barrel racing" and horse-related "timed event" activities will likely be addressed in the Florida Senate's planned overhaul of gambling regulations, according to Florida Senate President Don Gaetz.

Senate President Gaetz (R-Niceville) said he used to live in the upper Midwest where "I actually have seen a lot of barrel racing that's really barrel racing, as opposed to a front porch for gaming."

Gaetz said the Senate Gaming Committee should include the issue in its "clean-up" of gambling laws and regulations. "My expectation is . . . this is going to be addressed," he said. "If you've got an issue that's so contentious that there are lawsuits about what is and isn't lawful, then perhaps we need to have a little bit of clarification."

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