Brunetti takes another risk with Florida City jai-alai, poker

Back in 2009, John Brunetti Sr. took a risk. He invested in refurbishing a decayed Hialeah Park race track, with the goal of getting a slot license. Today, Brunetti’s race track is averaging $6 million a month in revenues from slot play.

In 2004, while the Hialeah Park race track was out of business, Florida voters had approved a constitutional amendment to let Broward and Miami-Dade voters decide on slots –– but influential Hialeah legislators eventually persuaded the state to write in their venue, too. Court rulings upheld the legislature’s right to do so. Hialeah Park now runs quarterhorse races, which last about 20 seconds, far different than the thoroughbred races that you see on TV. But it’s enough to qualify Hialeah for slots.

Brunetti’s latest project is called King’s Court. It’s in Florida City, a town of about 12,000 linking south Miami and the Florida Keys. By utilizing a recently discovered portion of a 1980 law, Brunetti received an extra pari-mutuel permit, and this month is completing construction of a jai-alai court and poker room. The court seats about 150; the poker room consists of six tables.

The first jai-alai match is set for 11:30 a.m. June 16.

Officials haven’t disclosed the cost, but the profit is potentially huge: if the state somehow expands slots in Florida – or even in Miami-Dade County, one of two that already allow pari-mutuels to have slots – Brunetti’s small endeavor could turn out very nicely; a small poker room, on the other hand, probably won’t make much money.

“Everybody would like to have slots,” says Brunetti’s son, John Jr.  “But that’s complicated.”

State legislators almost annually debate an adjustment of Florida’s gambling policy. They are attempting to generate maximum income from the Seminole Tribe of Florida and racetrack casinos, while placating those opposed to gambling.

“We’ll see if the state is inclined. If not, it could be the last pari-mutuel added in Miami-Dade County, perhaps in Florida,” Brunetti Jr. said.

The law, uncovered by John Lockwood, a lawyer for Hialeah Park’s competitor, Magic City Casino, states that the lowest-performing pari-mutuel in a county can apply for an extra jai-alai permit. It was written back in 1980, long before poker, let alone slots, was in the picture. Magic City gobbled up a permit in 2011 and others have followed, even though jai-alai itself is a dying sport.

“But we appear to be the first ones to actually create a new facility at an alternative location,” Brunetti Jr. notes.

Magic City also had its eye on the Florida City property, just east of the landmark Mutineer lounge, the first imbibing opportunity as travelers hit the Florida Keys. Brunetti bought the 38 acres, across from the Florida Keys Outlet Mall, for $6.7 million. Magic City became partners in the Casino @ Dania Beach, about 20 miles north of Hialeah Park.

The Brunettis had to conduct jai-alai this month or the window for activating their license closes. So after receiving necessary approvals from Florida City officials, they had to hustle up construction. The fronton building is called a “sprung structure,” which is tent-like and can be erected quickly.

“To construct a fronton comparable to Dania or Casino Miami was not feasible,” Brunetti Jr. said.

They then contracted with a company based in Marquina (Basque country on the border of France and Spain) to construct the jai-alai walls, which are made of a very sturdy tempered glass and can absorb the 100-mph-plus pelota flings of players.

“It’s impossible to break,” says Gozalo Vivanco, of JaiAlaiCourts.com. “A Formula One driver couldn’t go through it.” Each of the 88 glass panels comprising the main, back, and side jai-alai walls weighs 670 pounds.

The court is also shorter than those at Dania and Casino Miami, which are 176 feet. The one at King’s Court is 120 feet, part of a trend, says Vivanco’s partner, Inigo Calzacorta, who says more than 10,000 courts of the smaller size dot the Basque region, the epicenter of the game.

“It makes the game more accessible,” he says. Veteran jai-alai executive Milt Roth, who is based in Florida City and works for Brunetti, says amateur play will be offered when the pari-mutuel action is out of season.

The poker room will consist of six tables, located in an adjacent trailer. Hialeah tournament director Aaron Roiter will run the card room, which players can connect to via BravoPoker.com. He said he’s “beyond excited,” citing that opportunities to open a room from scratch are rare. No poker room is within 35 miles or so of the King’s Court facility, which expects to draw patrons from Homestead, Kendall, and those dissatisfied with Miccosukee Resort & Gaming.

By law, King’s Court must operate a jai-alai session before it can offer poker. The first match is set for noon June 11, followed by noon June 16 and 18, then noon and 6 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays in July. The facility can add simulcasting after 58 jai-alai performances. Then the picture will become clearer as to how successful a new poker facility will be – but the investment is really about slots, which King’s Court isn’t eligible for, under current state law. Slots are already spinning at Miami-Dade’s four other pari-mutuels, but this far south there’s nobody to complain about losing their slice of the pie.

As Brunetti Jr. said, the slots picture is “complicated,” and well beyond his control. That said, eight Florida counties that voted for slots took an argument all the way to the Supreme Court, and they lacked the support of a constitutional amendment. Slots are already spinning at Miami-Dade’s four other pari-mutuels, and with a facility as far south as Florida City, there’s nobody to complain about losing their slice of the pie.

Twitter: @NickSortal