Sarasota Kennel Club hanging on with help from poker room

SARASOTA -- Dog racing tracks elsewhere in the state may be in visible decline, but the Sarasota Kennel Club is hanging on.

The venerable track’s revenues are up 7 or 8 percent over 2009 for live dog racing, and up 10 percent since July in its card room, One-Eyed Jacks Poker, according to Jack Collins Jr., club general manager and vice president.

One of the main reasons live racing is up is because for the first time, the club is simulcasting live to other facilities, said Collins, whose family has owned the track 67 years.

A cool $500,000 in out-of-state money was handled in bets for 30 performances, Collins said during an interview earlier this week.

“It makes the customer betting here feel more confident because there’s more money in the pool to cash in on,” he said.

The club offers live championship racing Nov. 26 - May 7, according to its website, www.sarasotakennelclub.com.

The pari-mutuel at 5400 Old Bradenton Road has also benefitted from changes decreed by lawmakers last year that were part of a new, multi-billion dollar gaming pact.

“The card room has definitely been a bonus with the law change,” he said.

Among the changes lawmakers approved were allowing such card rooms to stay open longer hours, and to stay open later.

The change seems to be attracting a new clientele, with a day crowd that likes to come out earlier, and a late-night crowd that now can play and party as late as 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

One thing Collins and other pari-mutuel business owners across Florida wanted -- but did not get -- was the right to offer slot machines.

The gaming pact approved by the Florida Legislature gave exclusive rights to the Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida to operate table games in South Florida and slot machines outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Florida’s gambling and entertainment landscape has changed radically in the past 25 years, with the state lottery, Indian gaming, high-stakes poker, online betting and three additional pro sports franchises luring patrons away from pari-mutuels.

Dog racing has been in decline for 20 years. In Florida, where 16 tracks survive, the handle, or amount wagered, on racing has dropped from about $620 million to $300 million in 10 years.

The Seminole Tribe’s hotel and casinos could be viewed as the pari-mutuels’ brilliant nemesis, according to Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University and an expert on sports and gambling.

“Hard Rock has aggressive marketing,” he said. “You keep selling hair tonic, Jesus Christ, people are going to buy it. They give away cars. One of their prizes is paying off your mortgage. They’ve got the people absolutely wacko with their gimmicks. They could promote snow in the Caribbean.”

Although Sarasota’s track must compete with a Hard Rock casino that is 40 miles north in Tampa, it still manages to attract about 250,000 patrons a year, Collins noted.

Asked what his take on the future would be, Collins said that, while dog and horse racing may be in a downward decline, poker offers a new venture, “subsidizing what we’ve lost on dogs and horses.”

-- The Miami Herald contributed to this story.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.