Stories erupt about tiny Gretna housing a racino

Jun 26, 2012 3:00 AM

The first time we ever saw barrel racing was in the 60’s at the Pima County Fair (Arizona) in the desert west of the Tucson city limits. 

Several dozen talented, young cowgirls atop steeds of considerable agility traversed the barrels from front to back and back to front until one remained clearly the best. Certainly today’s rodeo fans around the country have enjoyed similar competitions as prelims to the calf roping and bull riding. In fact barrel racing is gaining in popularity and now is considered at some rodeos a main event.

However, not once watching barrel racing did it remotely occur that in the year 2012 it is the center piece for creating a racino. Sure, there might be a casual wager between cowboys or fans to keep the interest level up. But, that’s not what’s going on in the boondocks of the Sunshine State. Here’s the deal:

Tiny Gretna, Fla. (population 1,700), is located in Gadsden County in the Panhandle. The nearest megalopolis is Quincy (the county seat), and then Bainbridge, Ga. Gadsden is a traditional democratic stronghold in the long skinny panhandle area that goes bright red since the mid 1960’s. 

Gretna is located just a hop skip and jump off coast-to-coast Interstate 10 at the point in the state where motorists cannot imagine Florida continues on much further (it does). It centers the dullest, most boring section of I-10 with continuous forests of sphagnum moss-covered oak and pine trees – no scenery and straight as an arrow.

The three hour drive from Bowdenville to Pensacola is a snoozer. Greater Gretna touches but does not intrude into the Central Time Zone.

By way of background, five years ago a pie in the sky initiative by a private concern (supposedly in tandem with the Miami Dade County Commission and Airport Authority) tried to place slot machines in the airport. Considered mostly folly, it was declared ultimately totally illegal by the State. It was a gargantuan manipulation of the constitutional amendment allowing slots in the Miami area race tracks and frontons.

Shortly thereafter wire services around the state erupted with a story about tiny Gretna housing a racino in its midst with barrel racing as its center piece. Of course, since the State Constitution mandates slot machines were only legal in the Miami Dade/Broward County race tracks the chances of Gretna being a bonafide gaming destination was considered totally absurd.

Or was it?

The nearest pari-mutuel facility to Gretna is the dog track in Monticello near Tallahassee, or Panama City. Nothing in between!

In a state where telemarketers continue to sell underwater lots in the Everglades, and arcades in strip malls feature “Internet” look alike slot machines that pay out in “merchandise,” the prevailing philosophy “shoot it up the flagpole” continues to produce multiple overnight millionaires.

Scam artists are so numerous white collar criminals like Scott Rothstein and Bernie Madoff and Nevin Shapiro are revered by lesser operatives who stoop to fleecing friends, enemies, even relatives.

In that climate little Gretna proudly announced it would endorse the building, staffing and operating of a barrel racing arena using quarter horses in competition as a prelim (excuse) to open a full blown poker room and subsequent casino complex.

Six years ago when the Florida legislature authorized the marriage between horses, dogs, cestas and Wheel of Fortune machines much of the legal language was not specific (in fact ambiguous) as lobbyists played upon the income from slots to bolster the disastrous education budget of Florida, and social programs to boot. A panacea. Found money.

Well, some bright entrepreneurs reasoned there’s really no difference between Gulfstream Park’s thoroughbred oval, Hollywood Dog Track greyhound marathon course, the Miami Jai Alai fronton and Hialeah Park’s quarter horse sprints and competitive barrel racing (17 seconds and a cloud of dust).

The State was clueless. All of the various factions got to arguing with one another while the powers that be in Gretna plowed ahead.

Palm Beach County, which was excluded from the law (but a mecca for simulcast and greyhound wagering and poker), started legal suits against the state. Aside from the Disney corridor around Orlando, a variety of factions around the peninsula began sniffing around the viability of casinos or racinos.

Here’s a “coinkidink,” the private concern in the Gretna promotion involves one David Romanik who was the instigator of the failed attempt to get the slot machines into the Miami airport, and subsequently to place a slot parlor in the trendy western suburb, Weston. He was also a past CEO of Gulfstream Park and a savvy lawyer about all things gaming in Florida. In Gretna he had yet another interested partner: The Creek Indians.

The Creek tribe owns and operates successful casinos in Alabama and their historical tribal territory, which, depending upon who you ask extends into the south Georgia/West Florida marketplace. With Georgia being a state with no pari-mutuel or casino gaming there’s a vast untapped mass of pennies, nickels, dimes and dollars awaiting a convenient gambling destination.

The hue and cry against Gretna’s new facility has been swift and deafening – ranging from the National Barrel Horse Racing Association to the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association to thoroughbred and quarter horse breeders to the usual religious and social entities that automatically dismiss gambling of any kind.

All are adamantly opposed and vocal.

However, definitions of what constitutes a bonafide “race” in the State of Florida are cloudy at best and with no strong governing body, the door swung wide open for the little town that could. Even the weak, out of step governor looked the other way and kicked the can down to regulatory officials in departments varying from state to agriculture.

On a fairly frequent basis, a couple dozen people and eight or so horses and riders gather at the Creek Entertainment Gretna facility, which incidentally already houses a fully operational poker room – as owners campaign to add slots into the mix.

The PCI (Poarch Band of the Creek Indians along with Mr. Romanik and his partner, uber lobbyist Marc Dunbar) is building the race track facility and casino, holding job fairs, and generally marching on. PCI has gone so far as to send a breakage check to the Florida Quarter horse Racing Association with which it has no relationship. The check was returned immediately.

In January 2012 a referendum in Gadsden County was held to determine if the fine citizens of that (rural) county would allow slots/barrel racing, etc., in their midst. It passed. This vote, the very essence of which was illegal by constitutional statute, sent all manner of ripples through the industry and government.

State Attorney General Bond and state regulators proclaimed it illegal and horse enthusiasts across the state called it nothing more than a “get rich quick” scheme.

All that being said, the orchestration of going from nothing to a possible major casino player in two years is breathtaking. Mssrs. Romanik and Dunbar were able to get the biggest impediment to their scheme capsized by gaining the Governor’s ear and having the recalcitrant chief of the Pari-Mutuel division, Milt Champion, fired before the referendum was in place.

From that point forward they railroaded, cajoled, sidestepped, clouded just about every aspect of the issue and – bang, zoom, the poker take for the month of April was $232,019.099.

There is no surprise to those of us who’ve inhabited this state of slings and arrows over the years that such a scheme would not only be successful but leave the overall impression it’s a good thing for the masses (and city, county, state budgets, jobs, equestrian industry bolster, etc.).

There is also no surprise that a half dozen similar schemes around the state are already in the prep stage and, depending upon how long it takes the legislature and officials to capitulate, should be up and going within a few years.

Thank you Scott and Bernie and all your many, many predecessors for making Florida the land of opportunity (and sunshine).

Florida Gaming Report is exclusively prepared for GamingToday by Thompson/Hutchinson & Associates, the “Casino Doctors” based in Miami, Fla., with offices in Philadelphia and Tucson. The principals, Baird Thompson and William Hutchinson are veteran gaming executives and consultants with clients in the pari-mutuel and casino industry. Check them out at www.thecasinodoctors.com.