Amendment 4, slot machines legal in the tracks and frontons in Dade and Broward counties, had narrowly passed the statewide vote. Now, only one more hurdle left. The county commissions had to vote. Of course, the politicians smelled money and plenty of backroom negotiations were going on. Finally, an agreement of an additional percentage of the slot revenues would go to Dade and Broward for “traffic control and extra security.”
As we waited for their final vote of approval, I was doing my normal Tuesday evening managing of a near empty fronton at Dania Jai-Alai. As I “walked the floor” around 6:30 p.m., I couldn’t help feeling ambivalent about what was coming. Would our old formal downstairs lobby now be filled with slot machines instead of the thousands of Jai-Alai fans placing their bets from our Golden Years of the 1970s? Then, I heard security page me.
“There is someone on the phone that asked to speak to the manager and wouldn’t tell me his name,” the security guard on duty told me. I picked up the phone and a low, steady voice asked me if we were open tonight. Annoyed, knowing that I was sure he could have gotten that information from our security guard, I told him our first game started at 7 p.m. He, then, said something highly suspicious and I thought it was probably a joke.
“We would like to bring over a special guest, however, I cannot reveal who it is until we get there,” the mysterious voice told me. This was a very slow Tuesday evening. Who would be coming to Dania Jai-Alai, unable to reveal himself or herself, until arriving. This had to be a crank call. “We should be there in about 30 minutes… can you meet us in valet parking?”
As I waited downstairs, a half an hour went by, our valet parking area was nearly deserted. There was no unusual activity. I was about to go back to my office upstairs when suddenly a string of black limos turned from Dania Beach Blvd. into our valet area. The first car stopped, and a man jumped out with what appeared to be an ear bud in his right ear. He introduced himself as an agent for some security detail and wanted me to take him in the fronton to look around. I showed him the lobby areas and main seating area. He spoke into a microphone in his sleeve, and we returned to the valet area. Finally, the agent opened the limo door. A middle-aged lady stepped out, totally unrecognizable to me, stuck out her hand, and said in a British accent, “Mr. Fleischman, I’m Cherie Blair, thank you for having me.”
Cherie Blair, Blair, British accent… yes, Prime Minister of England Tony Blair’s wife! What the heck were they doing at Dania Jai-Alai? Then, some children got out of the car and accompanied us into the fronton. Some of her security followed us into the seating area.
When I joined Dania Jai-Alai, I learned that there was a small area in the middle of the fronton with extra plush, theater- type seats called “The Royal Box.” I am sure some celebrities in the past were seated there. But this may be the only time there would actually be near royalty in the Royal Box.
Cherie (she immediately told me to call her that) apparently had an old friend that lived in Palm Beach, and they wanted to meet somewhere. She told me that he suggested Dania Jai-Alai and he should arrive shortly. He did, and he joined the family in the Royal Box. She was intrigued by the game, as were her children. Her oldest son, Nicky, was especially excited by the sport. So, I took Nicky into the player’s quarters and let him watch a game from the bench, sitting next to the players. The view from behind is spectacular, and he got to even meet some of the players.
After taking some pictures of son Nicky and our Jai-Alai players, we returned to the Royal Box. Cherie Blair could not have been nicer. She thanked me for showing her son a behind-the-scenes look at Dania Jai-Alai and assured me this was the highlight of their trip.
After watching about six games, they had to depart. I told Cherie Blair that I would get the pictures printed and mail them to her. Then, I asked the dumbest question, “Where do I send the pictures, Cherie?” She smiled and kindly answered, “10 Downing Street, please.”
I now realized that’s like asking our President, “Where do I send the pictures?” The WHITE HOUSE, of course. But, that quiet Tuesday night, a night the Prime Minister’s wife suddenly appeared at Dania Jai-Alai, will still be one of the most memorable nights of my career.
Dade and Broward both gave their approval to Amendment 4. These questions dominated our thoughts: When do we get the slots? Would Steve Snyder sell to a Vegas company? Would this save the Jai-Alai industry? Would we still have jobs?
The next step, the Governor and the Legislature had to set the tax rate for the slot revenue. This would determine Dania Jai-Alai’s future. This would determine my future. What they did shocked us all.