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Firestorm brewing over future of Florida horse racing

Carlos E. Medina, Ocala Star Banner
November 21, 2011
In a small North Florida town of fewer than 2,000 people, a firestorm is brewing over the future of Florida horse racing and the hundreds of millions of dollars it generates annually.
In mid-October, the Florida Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering granted a license to Gretna Racing to hold a first-of-its-kind pari-mutuel barrel-racing meet.
Gretna is located about 30 miles west of Tallahassee, near the Florida-Georgia border.
Barrel racing has never been a wagering event, but in issuing the license the division noted that the law is not specific as to the manner of racing.
“State law requires that at least 50 percent of the horses used in quarter horse racing be registered quarter horses. The track was issued an operating license to conduct races for its quarter horse permit,” said Sandi Copes Poreda, director of communications for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Quarter horses are the breed typically used in barrel racing, which is traditionally a rodeo event. It is primarily a women’s discipline, with timed runs around a set of barrels.
But Kent Stirling, the executive director of the Florida Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said a lucrative card room license is behind the barrel racing idea and is a cheap way to satisfy the law.
“This is an end run around the Florida statutes, which are a little vague. It doesn’t define what racing is,” he said.
The first Gretna meet is scheduled to start on Dec. 1. The track must run two meets in consecutive years before it can operate a card room. Gretna will run back-to-back barrel-racing meets extending into January to satisfy the requirement.
Stirling worries that if Gretna’s license stands, other racing venues could implement the same type of racing and jettison more costly traditional racing.
“All of them (tracks) have quarter horse permits except for Calder. There’s nothing that says they can’t switch and keep all the card room and slots money for themselves,” Stirling said. “There is a loophole, and they are trying to drive a truck thorough it. It’s terrible. This could mean the end to a lot of people’s livelihoods.”
Florida racing associations representing thoroughbreds — including the Ocala-based Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association — quarter horses and standardbreds have united to fight the plans. The Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association has filed an administrative challenge over the license, and other racing entities are considering legal action.
“Barrel racing has never been a pari-mutuel sport. It was never intended to be a pari-mutuel sport. To say it is, is absurd,” said Phil Matthews, president of the FTBOA board of directors.
Matthews and others spent two days in Tallahassee this week talking to lawmakers about the issue. “They are very upset that this language has been exploited,” Matthews said. “What Gretna is doing is perverting the intent of the law.”
Since Gretna’s approval, another North Florida quarter horse permit holder, Hamilton Downs Horsetrack in Jasper, has applied for a similar license. Jasper is about 90 miles east of Tallahassee, near Valdosta, Ga.
Hamilton Downs is owned by Robert Glenn Richards, who also owns the adjacent Hamilton Jai-Alai & Poker.
But Gretna, which is owned by a partnership between the Alabama-based Poarch Band of Creek Indians and others with ties to South Florida thoroughbred track Gulfstream Park, has even bigger plans.
In January, Gadsden County voters will decide on a referendum on whether to allow Las Vegas-style slot machines in the county. The referendum will appear on the ballot for the Republican primary on Jan. 31.
Long-term goals for Gretna call for a resort-style casino with hotels, restaurants and an equestrian center.
Both Gretna and Hamilton Downs were granted quarter horse permits in 2008 when the law allowed the operator of a quarter horse meet to operate a card room. That loophole was since closed, but Gretna seemingly found another in using barrel racing in its application for licensing.
On its website, Gretna Racing states that the format will be head-to-head racing between two contestants. The card will feature eight riders who will compete in 11 races in bracket format to determine an ultimate winner. Wagers can be placed on the competitors. Purses will start at $2,000 and eventually come from a percentage of wagering and card room revenue. The percentage of the revenue going toward purses was not specified.
A call to Marc Dunbar, a Gretna partner and lobbyist for Gulfstream, was not immediately returned.
David Romanik and Paul Micucci, both past presidents of Gulfstream, also are partners in the venture.
A representative with the Poarch Creek tribe was not immediately available to comment, but the track’s website touches on the controversy. “We face active opposition from the AQHA and its Florida affiliate, the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association. Both of these organizations are asking our regulators to deny us the opportunity to conduct barrel racing as a pari-mutuel event. We adamantly maintain that pari-mutuel barrel racing is permitted by Florida’s laws and regulations,” according to the site.
The Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering announced it will set a hearing on the administrative challenge, but it could take several months. “It’s a get-rich-quick scheme,” Stirling said. “What makes it worse is that you have people involved in the industry trying to destroy it.”
Several quarter horse permits were issued between 2008 and 2009, including one to South Marion Real Estate Holdings, which has ties to the Iowa-based Isle of Capri Casinos. In 2010, the entity sought and received Marion County permission for a quarter horse track near the Sumter County line. No plans to build have been announced.