EBRO — There’s a reason pari-mutuel facilities across the state want to expand into more casino-like operations, as a News Herald analysis showed all 16 dog tracks in Florida lost money on their greyhound racing operations over the last three years.
Ebro Greyhound Park, the Mardi Gras Casino in South Florida and the Jefferson County Kennel Club were hit the hardest, with each losing more than $1 million in overall operations during a three-year period ending with fiscal year 2012.
A review of all 16 dog tracks in the state shows six of the 16 tracks lost money overall during those years, and all lost money strictly on dog track operations, totaling around $50 million. The ones that turned a profit offset their racing losses with card room revenues.
In the 2012 reporting period for Ebro, for instance, the card room turned a profit of $2,050,325. But it showed a loss of $2,905,154 on greyhound racing.
The tracks file audited reports with the state annually. For Ebro’s 2012 report, the accounting firm Carr, Riggs & Ingram appeared concerned, writing in its report, “Those conditions raise substantial doubt about the company’s ability to continue (operations).”
But Ebro track president and general manager Stockton Hess said the facility, which is nearly 50 years old, isn’t going anywhere.
“We have adjusted our expenses. We’ve cut where we can cut. We’ve turned it around now, where the numbers are in the black,” he said.
Hess said he wasn’t sure if the track would turn a profit in 2013 — that report won’t be out for several months — and said he wanted to talk about future possibilities, not the latest numbers, because he intends for the facility to be a part of Washington County’s future.
“Let’s focus on something positive,” he said.
Though the track just posted an $82,873 loss in 2011, its management was initially optimistic heading into a January 2012 Washington County referendum on allowing slot machines. Despite a second losing year, executives touted the Las Vegas-style gambling devices as the linchpin for a $300 million expansion, which would include a hotel, retails shops, restaurants and entertainment venue.
Residents approved slots, but state Attorney General Pam Bondi already had put up a massive roadblock, preventing Ebro from getting a license that would have allowed up to 2,000 slot machines.
Ebro’s expansion plans are now on hold, but Hess said the track would move forward with its five-year expansion plan if his slot license were approved.
The slots “would fund it. That’s the only thing that would fund it,” he said.
The spinning slot wheels are viewed as the industry’s saving grace. Only the Flagler Dog Track in South Florida has slot machines, but it serves as a shining hope for all the tracks without them. Between fiscal years 2009-10 and 2011-2012, Flagler posted a $38.2 million profit just from slots.
Though Flagler lost nearly $10 million on greyhounds, it posted the second highest profits of any dog track in the state during those years, due to its slots and card room.
The anvil around Ebro’s neck — and every pari-mutuel track in Florida — is a state law requiring a minimum number of races be run to operate a card room. Ebro must hold 167 performances — there are eight live races in a performance — to maintain its card room.
But unlike the cash-cow card room, dog races have been a losing venture for years. Between 2009 and 2012, Ebro lost $10.1 million on the greyhounds, which Hess described as an “on-paper” loss. He said poker is supporting racing at every track in the state.
The other tracks’ financial statements support Hess. Reports for the Naples Fort Myers Greyhound Track show it made $21.3 million on greyhounds, but the company says revenue sharing from the Flagler track’s slot machines are factored into that. The company says it actually is losing about $1 million a year on greyhounds.
Now all tracks are looking to the state Legislature to eliminate the race minimums — an action called “decoupling.” If that happened, Ebro would reduce performances but not eliminate them. Running the dogs is still beneficial because it draws people to the track, so they’ll spend money in the card room.
“Greyhound racing supports everything. Greyhound racing benefits every phase of the operation,” Hess said. “It brings more people to the race track.”
Waiting on Legislature
As it stands now, what the future holds for the track may be out of Hess’ hands, resting instead with the Legislature. Lawmakers plan to overhaul gaming in the 2014 session, and the future of slots and pari-mutuel race minimums likely will be addressed.
Hess said if the Legislature doesn’t approve slots at pari-mutuel tracks, he’ll trim back more but maintain “business as usual.” He thinks the Legislature will decouple and said it would be “criminal” if they didn’t.
State Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, staunchly opposes gambling expansion, but he’s not ready to draw any lines heading into the 2014 session.
Gaetz wouldn’t say whether he’d give a gaming bill a floor vote that would allow counties to decide on slots at the ballot box. He said it’s very early in the gaming bill’s development process and noted a state Senate committee is still holding public hearings across the state.
“I think it would be premature to speculate about what might or might not be in a bill when the first word … hasn’t been written yet,” he said.
Meanwhile, Gaetz has co-sponsored a decoupling bill in the past, which didn’t become law. He said he filed it in response to advocacy groups that made a strong case for stopping the “mistreatment” of some animals. But that was back in 2011.
“I certainly wouldn’t commit to where I’d stand on a decoupling issue now because I would have to understand the context of that decoupling inside a comprehensive gaming bill,” he said.
2012: $854,829 loss
2011: $82,873 loss
2010: $150,452 loss
2009: $104,902 profit
2008: $117,822 profit
2012: $2,905,154 loss
2011: $2,701,269 loss
2010: $2,326,980 loss
2009: $2,129,002 loss
2012: $2,050,325 profit
2011: $2,618,396 profit
2010: $2,176,528 profit
2009: $2,233,904 profit