Rumors were flying around everywhere about who was buying whom. South Florida was finally in play for casino operators everywhere. From Vegas to Biloxi, the gaming industry saw Florida as the new Mecca for gambling. And Dania Jai-Alai had to be viewed as one of the most lucrative properties of them all.
Remember, we had over 50 acres of land, located five minutes from the beach, less than five minutes from the ever-growing Ft. Lauderdale airport, and 30 minutes from South Beach. Plus, we had Jai-Alai. Marketed right, Jai-Alai could make a resurgence with slots as the draw.
Dania Beach was this quaint, village-like town, which was known for its antique shops. Dania and Hollywood beaches had yet to be developed beyond small motels and shops. All that could change with Dania becoming another Monte Carlo. Who had the vision to make that happen?
What I did know, and I certainly wasn’t a genius to think of this, was the huge advantage of being first to open their casino. I remember Resorts International being the first to open in Atlantic City. Their casino made a fortune, the stock skyrocketed, and they established their brand first. Bally’s finally opened their casino, but it took years before anyone caught up with Resorts. I was hoping we would do the same.
Meanwhile, a couple of months had passed since the voters approved Amendment 4 and the local commissions had given their okay. But, neither the Governor, nor the Florida Legislature, had passed any statutes laying out the framework for the slots at the pari-mutuels. Remember, the people had spoken. The amendment said the legislature “shall establish the framework…” to permit slots, as laid out in the amendment. The opponents, like Jeb Bush and the other conservatives in Tallahassee had no choice.
I soon found out how our democracy really works. Since the amendment didn’t spell out an actual timetable, the politicians delayed taking action. Thus, we were helpless and had to just sit on our thumbs.
The press began calling us, asking when we were beginning construction, were we selling to a Las Vegas company, how many slot machines would we have. I could not answer any of their questions. I kept telling the reporters to please call Tallahassee and ask them why they were not following the Constitution. After all, this amendment was now part of the Florida Constitution.
Then, one morning, Nick Sortal, a journalist for the Sun Sentinel, made his routine phone call to me. Nick would call almost monthly to get updates on Dania Jai-Alai. He was really their pari-mutuel writer and a very nice guy. He usually asked, “How’s business?” Nick had always done his homework and knew business was still in an awful decline. But we had some unusually cold weather during our busier Christmas/ New Year’s period and our numbers were even worse than expected.
Nick had our records since attendance and mutuel handle are reported publicly every performance. So, I was honest with him and told him that due to the weather we were down about 20% from the previous year. We spoke about player stats, upcoming promotions, the usual. I hung up thinking we were fortunate to have Nick giving us free publicity.
Steve Snyder, the owner and my boss, is a very calm, reserved man. I had now worked for him for more than seven years. I played racquetball with him a couple times a week and lunch almost every day, Steve had never expressed anything but praise for my efforts. He treated me with the utmost respect and friendship. He had a very measured temperament. Until that morning.
“What in the hell did you say to Nick Sortal?” he yelled at me across his desk, angrier than I had ever seen him. I was stunned, hardly knew how to respond. I had read Sortal’s article and truthfully did not know what upset him.
“Steve, what was wrong with Nick’s article?” I replied. “He asked me his normal questions.” I have dealt with reporters for over 30 years and always tried to answer their questions. I had never lied to them. So, what was it that upset Snyder?
“You talked about how bad business is,” he went on. “This is not the time to do that. I don’t want you to speak to anyone about our numbers unless you clear it with me.” Again, I was shocked. I had not been restricted from talking to the media since my first year at Tampa Jai-Alai when Ernie Larsen wanted everything to go through him. Now, Steve was treating me like a rookie PR guy. Why?
I looked at him and apologized. I was just hoping to defuse the situation and get the heck out of his office. He quickly calmed down and finally said, “Just watch yourself, I am dealing with some delicate situations and can’t afford any bad press.” That was my first hint on what was going on.
When I went downstairs to the 2nd floor, I stopped by John Knox’s office, the GM and told him what had just transpired. He confided in me that Steve was involved in some serious negotiations, but he could not say any more. John was great and told me not to worry about it.
Later that week, John, Clint Morris (the CFO), Steve, and I went to lunch. Steve was his normal self and finally said that he was negotiating with a company exploring a possible sale. He would not reveal who it was. He said he was still undecided about keeping Dania or selling it.
After that, I began my own forensic investigation into possible buyers. Was it Steve Wynn of the famous Mirage? Rumors were where he wanted to be in South Florida. MGM Grand had shown interest as well as Donald Trump, who already tried and failed miserably in Atlantic City. It could be almost any company.
Then, researching more in Google, I saw a casino company I had never heard of but was expanding like crazy. It was called Boyd Gaming Corporation out of Las Vegas. Boyd Gaming owned The Orleans on the strip, many casinos downtown, and Borgata in Atlantic City. But, they also owned Delta Downs, a race track in Louisiana. That caught my eye. Casinos and pari-mutuels, a perfect combination.
I went up to Clint Morris, hoping he would give it away, and said, “Clint, I know who Steve is talking to about a sale.” “It is Boyd Gaming!” Clint looked at me with a straight face, giving no hint whatsoever and said, “I can’t discuss it, Marty.” If Clint was a poker player, he sure didn’t tip his hand. I guess I was wrong. Or was I?
Weeks went by, months went by. No announcements from Steve. Isle of Capri Casino in Biloxi announced they were buying Pompano Harness Track as part of their company’s expansion plans. Hollywood Dog Track was going to be Mardi Gras Casino. I could feel being “first” may be slipping away.
Steve still silent, no announcements… until one day when he called John, Clint, and I to his office. “I wanted to tell you first. They are arriving later this afternoon to address the employees. I’ve reached an agreement to sell Dania Jai-Alai to…. BOYD GAMING.” Vegas, Baby!