Monday, February 02, 2009


Jai-Alai or Pelota Basca is a game close to my heart, having watched my father play the game as an amateur pelotari at a local Cancha or at the main fronton on Taft Avenue with the late great Don Enrique Zobel and other Spanish-mestizo gents. I was a very young boy then, and I thought that the game had something to do with men who played the game just had real "cojones." Some time last year, the Arroyo administration, known for its fondness for gambling, not to mention its milking cow Pagcor, invited possible investors for the planned relaunch of Jai-Alai in the country. If you recall, Jai-Alai was first played over a hundred years ago in its first venue along Taft Avenue, Manila, with its historic art-deco building. But that part of our history is gone forever, thanks to the callousness and self-serving Lito Atienza, who was then mayor of Manila. After the Taft operations shut down, Jai-Alai again saw life when Belle Corporation and Filipinas Gaming Entertainment Totalisator Corporation (FilGame), in partnership with Pagcor, re-opened Jai-Alai games to the public in a new 2,600-seat venue in Manila, just next to the Harrison Plaza. Both Basque and Pinoy players competed against each other to the delight of betting fans and spectators. The games were banned in 1986 by the Aquino administration after a game-fixing scandal. Then, an attempt to resurrect the games was made in 1994, but the Supreme Court banned it again on the grounds that gambling was against national interest and that the games had to be franchised only by the national government. Pagcor said it sought clearance from the Department of Justice (DoJ) and from Malacanang for its resumption, but several senators and the Catholic church had opposed its re-launch, declaring that it victimizes low-income groups which cannot afford to gamble.

Today, things are under way for its resumption (again) far from Manila. Its new venue will be in the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority (CEZA), brainchild of newly-installed Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile Sr. The invitation was presented by CEZA CEO and administrator Jose Mari Ponce during the opening day of a two-day Spain-Philippines business meet held last year. CEZA is a government unit under the Office of the President, and operates/manages a 50,000 hectare eco-zone in Cagayan. In his speech last year, Ponce encouraged Spanish investors to set up the Jai-Alai games in Cagayan. His speech has now reaped much fruit. For not only did the Spaniards reciprocate favorably, it even reeled in a local gambling lord in the person of Charlie 'Atong' Ang who stands to be the local partner of the Spaniards with the blessings of the masters of Cagayan Province. With this, CEZA could well become the virtual gaming center in the country. It is said that through virtual gaming, clients may play the games through proxies without necessarily being present there. Asked about the historical opposition of several sectors to Jai-Alai and other forms of gambling, CEZA PR head Chris Valenzona said that although the proposed games encouraged betting, local bets will never be allowed. Well, that remains to be seen. Easy to say that, because greed does have a way of creeping into the noblest of intentions. For even if these were to be exclusive to foreign players such as the Chinese and Koreans who are among the biggest clients of CEZA, Pinoys will always want a piece of the action, especially if it's a fast way to make a pile. In 2007, CEZA raised PhP110 million in revenues where 90 percent comes from casino earnings. With the construction of the airport, CEZA revenues were projected to double to over PhP200 million last year. CEZA's virtual gaming operations are cornered by its major locator, the First Cagayan Leisure and Resort Corporation. It also is a joint-venture partner of CEZA. So, it seems that the Eusko Group of Spain has found a local partner in Atong Ang. With this, methinks that the gaming syndicates are already planning something lucrative for them as well. But everything is in the bag now, and the judge's decision is final, or should I say, "El fallo del juez es inapelable," and who would dare cross paths with Enrile and question the re-opening of the Jai-Alai games in his Republic of Cagayan, especially now that he is the third most powerful man in the country.

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