Poker, Horses & Jai-Alai: A Guide to Gambling in South Florida
There’s a reason that when the makers of the “Grand Theft Auto” game set in Miami needed a name, they opted for “Vice City.” Yeah, we have more than our share of illicit drugs and even-more illicit sex, but many often seem to overlook another popular vice when they talk about our city: gambling. No other city that does not base its entire economy around games of chance has more opportunities to flush away your welfare check than Miami, and locals and tourists alike flock to our horse tracks, dog tracks and casinos like sailors to a siren.
The class of people who make up South Florida may also contribute to our prevalence of gambling establishments. And permissive state and local governments all know the old adage that the longer you play, the better the odds for the house. So what you get is a state, and more specifically a region, where you can bet on almost anything. Whether you like blackjack or horses, harnesses or greyhounds, jai-alai or poker, there is always somewhere to wager in Miami.
So lets take a look now at the buildings and businesses that make up South Florida’s booming betting economy.
CALDER RACE COURSE
Calder Race Course holds more racing days than any other track in South Florida. From May until December, Calder offers live thoroughbred racing Thursday through Monday, except in July and August when there is no racing on Tuesday. But despite its dominance of the racing calendar, Calder is as stripped down and nasty as a horse track gets.
Calder is a track for folks who like to play horses. Period. There are no fancy restaurants, no slot machines, no poker rooms. Just horses on the track and horses on TV. And the crowd is reflective of this. There’s no little kids running around taking pictures with the pretty horseys at Calder. There’s no girls asking questions like “So how much do I win if the odds are 2-to-1?” Actually, the only women you’ll see at Calder are chain smokers and scrappy old ladies, often both in one. What you will find are a plethora of men sitting in front of banks of televisions screaming unintelligibly in Spanish or Creole at jockeys riding 1000 miles away on the simulcast. Typically, these guys don’t actually bother themselves with live racing.
The track is located right next to Dolphin Stadium on the Dade-Broward County line, about 15 miles from both Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. It offers live racing on the dates mentioned above, and simulcast racing all year long. But like I said, Calder is for horse players, so be prepared to play.
Gulfstream Park, located just north of the county line in Hallandale Beach along US-1, is a multi-faceted gambling experience. Yes, originally Gulfstream was just a horse track, but after undergoing its multimillion-dollar facelift a few years back, Gulfstream now looks like a Mediterranean villa adorned with bars, slot machines and betting windows. Gone are the days of the outdoor concert stage for Foghat or Kansas when they come to town. Now there is a stage in the center of the Mediterranean masterpiece for all of them to perform as the horses parade by on their way to the track.
As a result of the poker rooms, slot machines, casino, and enhanced entertainment options, Gulfstream now hosts all sorts of people. Families show up, single folks looking for an afternoon of entertainment, and even people just coming to eat. That’s right, in addition to the food courts in the simulcast center and casino, Gulfstream Park has the elaborate Ten Palms Buffet (reminiscent of the legendary Vegas Buffets) and the newly-relocated Christine Lee’s, formerly of Miami Beach.
Of course, with a poker room, casino, simulcast center and multiple restaurants, Gulfstream Park can afford to limit its racing season. Despite being home to the biggest race in the state - The Florida Derby – Gulfstream only runs live races from January to April, racing every day but Tuesday. This, of course, is also the height of tourist and snowbird season (Gulfstream is just a short ride in a Lincoln Town Car from God’s Waiting Room in Aventura), so it appears they went for quality over Calder’s quantity. If you like to do more than just bet on horses when you go to the track, the video poker and Vegas-style slot machines in the casino and the live poker in the Sport of Kings Lounge will give you a wide array of options. But be forewarned you will find a lot more than just gamblers if you venture out to Gulfstream.
POMPANO PARK/THE ISLE
Pompano Park has a definite throwback feel. When the owners of the track decided to invest more money in renovating the place, they apparently felt the money would be best spent on the Isle Casino next door. The track, however, looks like you just stepped into 1967. But that isn’t all bad.
The windows and signs are all old, as are the benches, the seats, and the vast majority of the patrons. But if you are a fan of harness racing (a sport where the driver sits behind the horse in a cart, kinda like Ben Hur without the spikes) this is your only option for live racing in South Florida. The Trotters, as harness horses are known to regular horseplayers, are a lot like watching thoroughbreds, just not as fast and a lot more unpredictable. The best thing to do when wagering on harness racing is to bet on the best drivers. At Pompano, they are Bruce Ranger and Wally Hennessey. There’s your tip for the day.
The track is fun, in an old and funky way, and the food at the snack stands on the lower level is surprisingly good. But despite the fact that Pompano offers simulcast racing all year round and live racing every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night, most of the business in Pompano has now been diverted over to the Isle.
The Isle is a brand new, state of the art casino that is both clean and for the most part smoke-free (not something you can say about every casino in South Florida). It has that upscale, Disnified feel of some of the nicer Casinos in Las Vegas, and the dual-level sea of Vegas slots, Video Poker and poker rooms look like they have barely been touched since the place opened. But the crowd is mostly older folks and some hardcore gamblers from Broward County, making the casino look a lot nicer than the patrons. Still, for a gambling experience sans the scuz factor, the Isle is a great place to stop. The Isle also features a New York-style Deli, and Italian restaurant, a high-end steakhouse and, of course, a buffet.
So despite losing the traffic from the Broward County Fair, which used to use Pompano Park as its staging area, the park is doing ok with its new casino and live racing. While the harness track may be a step back in time to the sport’s heyday, the luxurious new casino still makes this a worthwhile gambling attraction.
MARDI GRAS GAMING (Hollywood Greyhound Track)
Mardi Gras sounds a little nicer than “Hollywood Dog Track,” doesn’t it? This, at least, it what the good marketing folks over at Mardi Gras Gaming in Hollywood figured when they re-opened their doors as a multi-faceted gaming center. As the glamorous sport of dog racing began to lose its luster, more and more tracks looked for ways to diversify their revenue. So, like many other tracks, Hollywood Dogs now has a 70,000 square foot casino complete with Vegas style slots and a poker room.
The casino part is mostly downstairs, and while cleaner and nicer than the old card room the place had attached to its dog track, it still has a cloud of smoke and low ceilings, which leave the gambler a little claustrophobic. The new third floor “balcony” offers an expanse of slot machines with a view of the city. The second floor is a poker room, which leads out to the main attraction: Dog Racing. And by main attraction, I mean on a typical night you might find a dozen or so spectators out watching the dogs.
Dog racing is what you make of it. If you can put the animal-rights aspect in the back of your mind, or just put it in the front of your mind and not care, it is a fast-paced alternative to the horses which offers a wider variety of betting options than standard horse playing. And as far as dog tracks in South Florida go, Mardi Gras is by far the nicest. But I would only recommend Mardi Gras for those who don’t feel like driving far from Hollywood, or those who want to bet on dogs. For regular gambling, the area offers a lot better alternatives. Mardi Gras offers both live and simulcast greyhound wagering as well as poker and slots.
When you look at the rusted roof and decaying bleachers of the Flagler Dog Track, you wonder if there ever was a time when this place was full. In the dozens of afternoons I have spent on the rail at Flagler, I have never in my life seen anyone sitting in the grandstands. Hell, the handful of benches in the general seating area are hardly ever full, as most folks at the dog track are people who want to bet on simulcast horse races, but the bus ride to Calder was just too long. Funny as that may sound, it’s pretty much the case.
The dog racing at Flagler, located in the heart of the city of Miami on Southwest 7th St. and 37th Ave., runs every day but Monday and Wednesday at 1 p.m. and features simulcast wagering every day of the week. But the main attraction to the Flagler Dog track is its weekly flea market, which has absolutely nothing to do with gambling (at least, not officially) but is a great Miami cultural experience if you ever want to have one. Still, it is a sad comment that a track’s biggest selling point is bootleg DVD and porn sales in its parking lot on the weekends.
Flagler Dogs has also recently opened the Magic City Casino, which is actually quite nice, though as of right now it doesn’t feature much other than a poker room. Still, if you are in the city and don’t want to go far, or can’t due to a suspended license, this is a surprisingly nice poker venue that is open every day. In addition to dog and simulcast horse racing, and poker, Flagler offers a sports bar with plasma TV’s and NFL Sunday ticket. I would not trust the food at this place, but you know, beer is beer and there are worse places to watch a game.
Located right near the airport and next door to the legendary Pink Pussycat Gentlemen’s Club, Miami Jai-Alai is a landmark pari-mutuel facility in South Floirda. It was even featured in the opening to the “Miami Vice” TV show, for those who remember. If you’ve ever wondered who that guy with the helmet with the big, sickle-shaped basket-looking thing attached to his hand was during the opening credits, well, that was a player at Miami Jai-Alai.
For those unfamiliar, Jai-Alai is a Basque sport played on an indoor fronton, which is basically an oversized racquetball court. A player throws a ball at a wall using a cesta, the aforementioned sickle-shaped basket, and the other one must pick it up with the cesta and hurl it back at the wall before it bounces twice. The winner of each point stays on the court and receives one point, while the loser goes to the back of the line of challengers. The first person – or team as you can play doubles jai-alai as well - to a pre-determined number of points wins. And you, the gambler, bet on this. Yes, we do understand the vast potential for corruption when betting on human performances on a low-level, but much like the treatment of dogs at the greyhound track, we put this in the back of our minds or just don’t care.
Miami Jail-Alai features seating for 6500 people, which is roughly 6485 more seats than the place needs on an average night. While the picture on the venue’s website depicts a packed house, I have rarely seen a crowd much over a few dozen. This is all well and good as it keeps the lines at the betting windows short. Miami Jai-Alai also features a terrace restaurant with pretty decent food and a poker room that is not much to speak of. And, of course, plenty of simulcast wagering on other jai-alai locations, thoroughbreds, trotters and dogs. So if you want to bet on just about anything that is legal to bet on in Florida, and don’t want to drive too far out of the city, Miami Jai-Alai is a good spot. It offers live action at noon every day except Tuesday, and evening performances at 7 on Friday and Saturday. Simulcast is available every day.
Unlike its Miami counterpart, Dania Jai-Alai has put a good amount of effort into marketing itself on radio and television. Its catchy “We Got Poker, Ponies and Jai-Alai,” jingle gets stuck in your head, and any time you are in East Broward County, and have a hankering to bet on any of the three, well, that song tells you straight where to go.
The Jai-Alai action at Dania is indistinguishable from that in Miami, but the venue itself is quite different. First, it often boasts a decent-sized crowd thanks to its upscale upstairs sports bar and card room, and expansive simulcast area. Dania Jai-Alai also features dollar beer specials on Wednesday, which for some reason seems to draw a disproportionally large amount of high schoolers to the facility. Apparently the “If you’re old enough to reach the counter, you’re old enough to bet” rule that most places apply also goes for beer at Dania. Whatever brings ‘em in, I suppose.
The increased crowds and upbeat atmosphere of nighttime Jai-Alai in Dania give it a more entertaining feel than the Miami location, and as such makes it a better place to go to watch the live action. The poker room is large, but not incredibly impressive, and the simulcast area near the entrance is comfortable enough for betting on televised racing. If you live in Broward, or are willing to drive, Dania Jai-Alai is truly a one-stop shop for pari-mutuels that gives you the added bonus of live action. Dania offers live Jai-Alai at noon and 7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sundays.
SEMINOLE HARD ROCK HOLLYWOOD
For those who didn’t know, the Seminoles are richer than God. And I’m not talking about people who graduated from that “university” in Tallahassee, I’m talking about the Indian tribe who used to populate the State of Florida. And this little gem just off Florida’s Turnpike in the Seminole Reservation near Hollywood is their flagship operation.
The Seminoles bought the entire Hard Rock enterprise a couple of years back, meaning that they now own all the Prince Costumes and Mark Knopfler guitars you see on the wall as you walk through this behemoth casino floor. The Hard Rock in Hollywood is currently the only casino in Florida that offers blackjack, baccarat and other table games (no roulette or craps, though), as per its agreement with Governor Charlie Crist. It is also the only casino with a luxury hotel above it, and an entire nightlife and shopping district outside a set of double doors. The only thing you can compare the Seminole Hard Rock to is the Hard Rock in Las Vegas which, for my money, is inferior to this one (and shut up about the Rehab party, already).
Though the casino itself does not boast as many games as you might find in Vegas, it is the same size as most of the big ones there, but without the smoke. The sheer size of the place makes it a pleasure to walk through, and the Vegas style slots entice you to toss away a few dollars on your way through to the Seminole Paradise.
Seminole Paradise is the aforementioned shopping and entertainment outdoor mall, which features a strip of South Beach-quality nightclubs (some are owned by established South Beach owners) and several bars and restaurants. It also features the newly-relocated card room, which is a mammoth two-story venue that was formerly a large sports bar. The place is designed so that a tourist who visits doesn’t have to leave the property to get the full South Florida experience.
If you want to gamble, and are not looking for any sort of live action or simulcasting, Seminole Hard Rock is the place to do it. Not only do you have the widest options of games and slots, but you also have restaurants, nightlife, and thousands of people to entertain you. But the secret about this place is out: On a weekend, a blackjack or poker seat is hard to come by, and so are parking spaces (they have people who you can pay to take you from your car to the casino). So arrive early or be prepared to wait. Also, the minimums at the blackjack tables are currently $25, so don’t go thinking you can play for half an hour with a hundred bucks. Those Seminoles didn’t raise enough money to buy the Hard Rock by running dollar tables.
The Seminole Hard Rock is open all day, every day, although bar and club hours can vary.
SEMINOLE CASINO COCONUT CREEK
Lest you be confused, the Seminole Casino in Coconut Creek is NOT the Hard Rock. Yes, the Seminoles own both, and if you read the papers this one is next up for blackjack and baccarat, but it is exactly what it purports to be: a casino.
While large, clean, and for the most part a nice place to go and gamble, the Coconut Creek location between Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach draws more of the older folks looking to do some gaming rather than the young people and tourists of its big brother to the south. The bluehairs from Boca and Delray seem to like this place, and it has much more of a locals’ feel than the Hollywood location. And while the Vegas style slots and poker room, as well as video poker and other games, attract good crowds, you will not have to resort to fisticuffs to get a seat. Although given the age of the crowd, your chances would probably be pretty good if you did.
The Coconut Creek Casino also has a very good buffet called “Fresh Harvest,” which features a lot of items you don’t find at typical casino buffets, as well as an ultra-lounge called “Nectar.” Because of its location, though, I would recommend Coconut Creek only for those who want strictly to gamble and want a more relaxed place to do it. The Seminole Coconut Creek Casino is open all day, every day, but does not feature any live racing or simulcast.
MICCOSUKEE RESORT AND GAMING
As you drive out U.S. 41 past the western Miami Suburbs and into the Everglades, your last view of civilization – if you can call it that – is the Miccosukee Casino. A giant hotel on the fringes of the Everglades, the Miccosukee was South Florida’s first mega-casino resort and continues to be a popular gambling-tourism destination today.
The large hotel has the great selling point of being right near the Everglades, where visitors can take an airboat ride, visit the Indian Village, or watch an alligator wrestling show all within a short drive. This is a good thing for the Miccosukee, because aside from that and slot machines, this casino is not a fun place to go. First, the casino itself smells vaguely like the back of a used 1989 Cadillac, and the cigarette smoke has saturated just about every piece of furniture in the place. It is also visible in the air of the casino, making it a tough place to gamble for a non-smoker.
And, with the advent of blackjack at the other Indian Casino up the Turnpike, and the addition of slots and card rooms to live-racing venues in other parts of the county, the gambling allure of the Miccosukee isn’t too strong. Yes, it does have the most impressive High Stakes Bingo parlor I’ve ever seen, and the casino floor is large enough to allow for the crowds, but the gambling experience there is not the best. Nor is the food. Though I cannot speak for the resort’s fine dining restaurant, the buffet and 24-hour deli make you think you would have been better served to stop at The Pit Barbecue on the way out to the Glades.
So while the Miccosukee have done a brilliant job marketing their resort, and manage to maintain a fairly solid business, this casino is best for those who may live out in West Dade. Or those who want a home base to travel out into the Everglades that offers more for amenities than a coffee machine in the office. Otherwise, your gambling needs are probably better met at one of the plethora of other places South Florida has to offer.
A WORD ABOUT GAMBLINE CRUISES
I have been on more than my share of cruises in my life. Sun Cruise, Aquasino, Casino Princessa, I’ve made the mistake of going out on ‘em all. And, to be completely honest, I could not tell you the difference between any of them. Typically, you pay a small fee to either go out on a boat that has a casino on it, or on a charter boat that takes you to another boat out on international waters, and you gamble. Now, because you are in international waters, these boats offer all the games you can think of as well as Vegas style slots. They also feed you free liquor while you gamble, much like every other casino in the world. These, however are the upsides.
If you are into gambling, and can do it for a long time, then this might be a fun trip for you. However, you must remember that the longer you play, the less the odds are in your favor. And should you choose to cash out while you are ahead, well, guess what? There ain’t shit else to do 10 miles off the coast of Miami in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean but gamble. I mean, you might find a lounge singer, or a buffet of inedible food, or maybe a bar, but nobody’s going to be handing you a fishing pole and a chum bucket once you step away from the Roulette table and offer you a chance to catch a marlin. What I’m saying is, it’s a long wait to go back to shore, and if you are easily bored you are going to end up losing whatever you won.
So unless you have a lot of money, and don’t mind losing it, do yourself a favor and stay on dry land when you decide to gamble in South Florida. We have no shortage of places eager to take your money, whether you want to bet it on horses, dogs, people or cards. We love our vices down here, and gambling is no exception. Just please remember to gamble responsibly and only wager what you can afford to lose. Because if you don’t, well, there’ll be a Seminole in a Range Rover driving around with you to thank.
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