February 23, 2024

Fronton and Center

Florida Jai alai makes a comeback

Mike Vogel | 3/25/2020

Eye on the prize

While horse track owners have a business case for converting to jai alai, voters in 2018 upended a similar proposition for dog track operators. Voters via constitutional amendment banned dog racing as of the end of this year. Dog track owners are allowed to keep their slots and card rooms without having to run dogs anymore. After this year, Magic City, since it had a dog track license, won’t have to put on jai alai to keep its casino open. (The Legislature is considering a similar decoupling at horse and jai alai venues.)

Savin, though, says it will continue as long as the players put in the effort. He says jai alai has been “mismarketed and mispackaged” and can make a comeback. The sport has appeal. Spectators sit quite close to players. The game is fast-paced and wagering turns over quickly. A horse race can be run about every half-hour; a jai alai game takes 10 minutes.

Magic City launches a YouTube channel this month to build player profiles and allow non-wagering fans to see games. Cigar City, owner of the Jai Alai beer brand, will sponsor a championship tournament this month. The field of 64 includes retired legends, current traditional players, some amateurs and the Magic City players. They will compete for $20,000 in prize money.

There’s another reason for Magic City to promote the sport. Magic City, through that quirk in state law Lockwood discovered, obtained one of the permits for a new fronton. It would be in Edgewater, the area along Biscayne Boulevard just north of downtown. It’s controversial because the fronton, though it wouldn’t bring slots, would be the first gambling venue near downtown. It’s been the subject of litigation.

At Magic City, as the pace of practice picks up behind him, Savin says he hopes a share of the money formerly wagered on dogs in Florida makes it to the fronton.

“If we picked up 10% to 20% of the dog money, we would be a very profitable jai alai operation,” Savin says. “It’s a gamble. We won’t know for probably three more years if this was a worthwhile investment.”

jai alai (noun)

Pronounced Hi-LIE. It means “merry festival” in Basque. The name originated when the game was imported to Cuba in 1900.

How to Play

Jai alai is played against three walls — the front, the back and one side wall. The object is to throw the ball at the wall in a way that makes it hard for the opponent to catch and return it. The opponent needs to be able to catch the ball before it hits the ground or after its first bounce and return it back to the wall.

Betting on jai alai is the same as betting on horse or dog racing. You can place a “win,” “place” or “show” bet on a player or team, or you can wager on who will be the top two finishers with a “quinella” bet. More complex wagers are possible.


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