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Competition causes gambling boats to just sail away

Aug 19, 2008 7:00 PM

Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |Interesting news in the casino/racino world, far from the glowing Strip.

In Florida, the last gambling boat out of the teeming Ft. Lauderdale to Miami area sailed from Port Everglades Sunday, this time really on a cruise to nowhere. SeaScape Entertainment announced it was abandoning the port, and some crew members told the Miami Herald they had not been paid for months. A lawyer filed suit against SeaScape for six of them.

Before SeaScape weighed anchor, Horizon’s Edge Casino Cruises pulled out of port, and Aquasino also left. That meant the rich and tourist-laden southeast coast of Florida between Palm Beach and Miami had only one boat, the Palm Beach Princess, and it is up for sale at auction.

What this means is that the Seminoles and the track racinos simply overpowered the boats. With Gulfstream thoroughbreds and Pompano Park harness and the greyhounds in Broward County all offering slots in fancy racinos, and the Indians packing them in at their casinos, including a big one at their Hard Rock, why would anyone take to the water to gamble?

The story was not too different in Indiana, where riverboat casinos were down 11% in attendance in July as Hoosier Park and Indiana Downs racetracks were up $5 million in the same month.

If the casinos are victims of this shift in choice, the beneficiaries are horsemen at racetracks with racinos.

Probably the best example of this came last Sunday at Harrah’s Chester Casino and Racetrack, just south of the Philadelphia airport on the Delaware River.

Chester was a dismal place, until a former Pennsylvania legislator named Joe Lashinger, who operated a harness track at Pocono Downs in the state’s northeast mountain resort area, got the bright idea that the depressed town would be a good location for another track and a racino. The Philadelphia area had lost two beautiful racing plants – Liberty Bell Park and Brandywine Raceway in nearby Wilmington, Delaware.

Lashinger set out to build one, and soon got Harrah’s enthused with Pennsylvania linking its slots to the state’s racetracks.

They built a model track on the site of an abandoned steel mill, right next to the river. Its stretch turn goes over water. And the adage about "Build It And They Will Come" held true, as Philadelphians flocked to downtrodden Chester to play.

Last Sunday was the best indication of how successful Joe Lashinger’s idea turned out. The harness track paid out $2.38 million Sunday in purses, with two $500,000 races, one for $350,000, five with purses ranging from $100,000 to $250,000 and assorted other rich goodies.

These purses are not generated by the racing. They come from Chester’s slots, and they have turned the racetrack into a bonanza for horsemen.

There is, of course, a cloud on the horizon, as usual.

Philadelphia is getting casinos, but in a slow and difficult birth. There are battles being resolved, and the casinos will be here before long. The city already has a racino at Philadelphia Park, which is in the northeast section of the city, well removed from Chester, and it has a center city OTB.

Harrah’s Chester can enjoy good times as Pennsylvania fills its allotted quota of casinos and racinos, but it will have to share the spoils down the road.

In Boston, meanwhile, where the only thing stopping casinos is a struggle between the governor, who wants them, and the legislature, which doesn’t want him to get credit for them.

In an interesting development there, Suffolk Downs, longtime host to Massachusetts thoroughbred racing, and Wonderland dog track, are merging. They sit in two towns close to one another – Suffolk in East Boston and Wonderland in Revere – both linked to downtown Boston by the Callahan Tunnel under Boston Harbor, and very close to Logan International Airport. They also have major highway systems that run close to their front gates and they figure that they jointly would make a convenient, popular and easily accessible site for an entertainment complex, with slots.

And then there is Pennsylvania. Centaur Gaming of Indianapolis, Indiana, obtained a racing license to build a $400 million state-of-the-art racetrack in Lawrence County in the far western reaches of the state, near the Ohio line. Ohio has no slots. And neither does Centaur, as of now, for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, unlike the harness racing commission, has declined to give them one, saying it needs more time.

Centaur had a commitment from Credit-Suisse bank for a $995 million line of credit, contingent on a gaming license.

A Centaur spokesman said last week that contrary to some press reports, it had "absolutely no intention" of withdrawing its gaming license application. The Control Board says it will hold "a suitability hearing" next month, and if favorable a board meeting, with more investigation, sometime later.

Meanwhile, go watch your grass grow.