Slots by a TKO

On a spring Thursday, the parking lot at Gulfstream Race Park appears as vast and unbroken as a salt flat, inviting a high-speed, line-cutting swoop to the front of the clubhouse.

The racetrack has stood here in Hallandale Beach since 1939, virtually the dawn of time in South Florida years, and it has run races continually since World War II. But with attendance declining here and at other tracks, the original, 65-year-old, 30,000-seat track had become outdated. That vast parking lot hardly ever filled up anymore.

Hence, the new Gulfstream. Here at the edge of the lot stands a Simpsons-yellow building with two stories of high arches in a crescent around a paddock encircling a fountain alive with dancing water and colored lights. The new clubhouse, which opened in January, has all the ersatz elegance of a cocaine kingpin's jungle hacienda.

The horseracing crowd is already complaining about an apparent de-emphasis on the ponies here. The building has only about half the former race-day seating capacity, and racing fans find themselves butting against one another when they try to spread out their racing newspapers. What's going on? Here's a clue. A sign near the elevator reminds guests: "Slots are coming to Gulfstream this summer."

Even without the actual one-armed bandits, Vegas has arrived at Gulfstream. On the second floor, the sound of stadium announcers echoes onto the concourse. The January-to-April race season is over, and soon basketball season will be as well. In the interim, Gulfstream's new venue, Tickets Sports Theatre, a posh restaurant that seats 440 and tonight appears nearly full, has opened its doors for fans and casual gamblers who might want to place a simulcast racing bet while swilling Bud Lights and watching Shaquille O'Neal get into foul trouble.

The joint also features its own in-house entertainment. At a break in the game, the speakers suddenly blare L.L. Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out," and a door at the front of the room disgorges a fleet of women clad in decorated white T-shirts and deep-pink shorts with the high, cheek-cradling cut of briefs long ago outgrown. These are the Knockouts. They're babes. They cavort past people eating chicken wings and pasta, waving inflatable, hot-pink boxing gloves. One hands a glove to a kid of maybe 11 who's wearing a Dwyane Wade jersey, and he slips it on triumphantly to bop his brother in the puss.

WAXY-AM (790) sports radio host Paul Messels and a Knockout select a strapping young guy named Jason from the audience to choose one of six doors on stage. He chooses door five, from which emerges a comely Knockout with a sign reading "$500," which ought to cover Jason's hair-gel bill this month.

At halftime, Messels and another Knockout summon to the stage a customer who will get to take the equivalent of a half-court basketball shot with a thousand bucks at stake. When the man — middle-aged, heavyset, his shirt tucked into his slacks — comes forward, the hostess sits him on a couch and tells him to wait. Then the lights dim. Spotlights fall on Knockouts in high boots and fishnet waggling on platforms outfitted with what look like stripper poles. They complete a second number as a group of seven, like a Parisian revue crossed with a halftime dance number.

Then the heavy older man gets to take his shot, which he must have been inwardly dreading, because with the house lights upon him, he chucks a granny-style underhand shot at the hoop. It lands so short that it requires a bounce just to reach the pole holding up the goal. Messels wonders aloud whether they could have counted a ball that bounced in.

One of the Knockouts consolingly pats the contestant on the shoulder.

"What's your day job?" she asks into the mic.

"I play golf," he replies, before slinking back to his table for high-fives.

This scene will soon be the new face of gambling in Broward County: jumbo-screen TVs, $12 Cuban sandwiches, boobs bouncing in kids' faces, every man a big shot. The first wave of Broward's complement of 6,000 slot machines at the four Broward facilities where the state allows and regulates gambling — Gulfstream, Pompano Park horse track, Hollywood Greyhound track, and Dania Jai-Alai — arrive in August.

In truth, Broward gamblers have never had more betting venues: cruises to nowhere, websites, the Bahamas, low-stakes poker. But the slot machines will be the first legal, Las Vegas-style gambling in the state outside of an Indian reservation. Since Broward voters passed a county referendum allowing the pari-mutuels to become "racinos," the struggling tracks have undertaken hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of new development to prepare for the slots (and perhaps more gambling someday) and to offer the same kind of swanky, gambling-resort trappings as Vegas and, locally, the Seminole Tribe's hugely successful Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which has about 2,100 one-armed bandits sucking up coins.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling