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Business Observer Thursday, Mar. 25, 2010 12 years ago

Let it Ride

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An 81-year-old Gulf Coast gambling business needs a pick-me-up. Some of its brightest hopes are pinned on state legislators.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Jack Collins Jr. isn't a gambling man per se, but he hopes the 2010 Florida legislative session will be a sure thing for his business.

Collins and his family run the Sarasota Kennel Club, a live dog-racing track that takes in about $90 million annually in bets on dog races, televised horse races and poker games. The Collins family has operated the track since 1944, when Collin's grandfather, Jerry Collins, bought it from foreclosure on the courthouse steps for $5,000.

But Collins and his brother, Chris Collins, have told local politicians for a few years that state regulations and a dramatic — and recent — increase in competition is a double whack that threatens to put the club out of business. The track, which handles a pool of bets called parimutuels, initially opened in 1929.

“You can gamble anywhere you stop your car now,” says Chris Collins, who cited convenience store lottery tickets and under-the-table slot machine parlors that dot Sarasota and Bradenton as some of the competition.

Jack Collins, meanwhile, met several times with Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton and Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, before the 2010 session. Galvano has been lukewarm to gambling expansion in the state during past sessions.

“I let them know some of the economic difficulties parimutuels are faced with,” says Collins. “If things don't change, than I don't know if there will be a fourth generation here.”

Several bills could be acted on during the current Legislative session. One bill, filed by Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, calls for a revision of slot machine rules and regulations.

That bill holds potential for Collins, who says if he were allowed to, he would build a facility on land next to the Sarasota Kennel Club to house slot machines. The Collins brothers run the family business along with a sister and their father, Jack Collins Sr.

“This [legislative] session is very important to my industry because we need to get more ways to compete,” says the younger Jack Collins. “This year we're in as strong a position as we've ever been in.”

Even if some pro-dog track laws are passed this year, Collins, 46, says he realizes the parimuteuel industry salad days are long gone. Says Collins: “You need a lot more product now to get the same or less money.”

For example, for each of the past three years it has taken about seven months of races going 12 times a day, 6 days a week to bring in $40 million on horse and dog bets. Horse bets are placed on races at other tracks nationwide that are broadcast in Sarasota on simulcast TV.

In the mid-1980s, however, Collins says the track was able to bring in $50 million a year in bets on dog and horse races in just four months. The decrease is industry wide: There are 18 registered greyhound dog racing tracks in Florida, including Derby Lane in St. Petersburg and Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track in Bonita Springs, and all of the tracks have faced similar issues.

The Sarasota Kennel Club joined many peers and competitors in the state in 2003 when it attempted to add a poker room to the gambling mix of bets.

That bet became a lesson in politics and perception for Jack Collins.

Collins thought his pitch to the Sarasota County Commission, which could approve or deny the poker expansion, would be a cinch. He would tell them about all the jobs and economic impact the move would bring to the county.

But commissioners balked at first, saying a poker room would turn Sarasota into a mini-Vegas. After three years of debate, Collins finally won the right to open a poker room inside the Sarasota Kennel Club. He spent thousands of dollars on legal and political consultants in the process.

“I didn't think it would be a big deal,” says Collins. “I blame myself for not letting [commissioners] know the facts.”

The poker room, behind the track's grandstands, opened in 2006 and Collins expanded it from 24 to 32 tables in 2007. It now brings in more money in bets than the dog and horse races combined.
— Mark Gordon

AT A GLANCE:
Sarasota Kennel Club

The Sarasota Kennel Club runs greyhound dog races for seven months a year, at a rate of 12 races per day for six days per week. The track has some large bills, including:
• $300,000 a year in electricity;
• $150,000 a year in water;
• $250,000 a year in property insurance
• $200,000 in property taxes
Source: Sarasota Kennel Club

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