The new Quarter Horse track Oxford Downs isn't planning any of the flag-drop races, let alone pari-mutuel barrel races, that in recent years stirred up controversy at Gretna Racing in Florida.
But the track that opened April 7 in Summerfield, about 25 miles south of Ocala, is nevertheless in a dispute with a coalition of Florida Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse breeding and horsemen's organizations that last year convinced a state court to ban pari-mutuel barrel racing at Gretna and throughout Florida.
The industry groups, spearheaded this time by the Ocala-based Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association, maintain that the Oxford Downs racing surface is unsafe for horses and jockeys. Longer-term, they fear Oxford Downs could be the first of several Quarter Horse tracks the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering might allow to open without being accredited by the American Quarter Horse Racing Association–and with live racing as an apparent lower priority than poker and import simulcasts.
The dispute is pitting the American Quarter Horse Association's Florida affiliates and their Thoroughbred allies against newcomers that are utilizing advantages available under Florida laws and rules that are laden with ambiguities, including the lack of a clear definition of "horse race."
Without success, the industry groups asked the Marion County Board of Commissioners to delay Oxford Downs from opening. At an April 1 meeting they noted Oxford Downs has no permanent buildings, and they presented details of their views on the safety issue.
For its one-day meet Oxford Downs had wooden rails and no safety rail. The Jockeys' Guild sent the Marion County commission a letter supporting the industry groups on the safety issue.
"What (Oxford Downs is) doing is all about poker," said Lonny Powell, chief executive officer of the FTBOA. "They are not following through with what they promised for a track and buildings."
There were no injuries or other racing incidents April 7. But Powell said Oxford Downs' opening day was "a travesty, and is not legitimate horse racing" for reasons that include safety issues.
Oxford Downs officials maintain that the industry groups' allegations are not valid.
"Oxford Downs has met all of the state's requirements and passed numerous benchmarks and inspections required for them to be granted a live racing license," Tony Mendola, the track's president and principal owner, said in a statement to The Blood-Horse. "The owner and operators of Oxford Downs are dedicated to creating a facility that brings the economic benefits of horse racing to Marion County.
"Local Quarter Horse racing provides the opportunity for horsemen who raise and train their horses right here in our community to also race here instead of having to travel to venues in South Florida or out of state to race."
Mendola said Oxford Downs plans to make a series of upgrades to its racetrack and property before it resumes racing in July. Mendola is the founder and president of real-estate developer Bellwether Properties in Ocala; South Marion Real Estate Holdings holds the permit for Oxford Downs.
The Ocala Breeders' Sales Co., the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association, and the Florida Quarter Horse Breeders and Owners Association have joined the FTBOA in opposition to Oxford Downs.
Four Florida entities have permits for Quarter Horse racing and are eligible to apply for licenses. In Florida, a new pari-mutuel entity after one racing day can be eligible to have a year-round poker room. Within a year it can add import simulcasts that would include Thoroughbred races. There also is the prospect of a casino with slot machines if allowed by the Florida legislature and county voters.
Oxford Downs opened April 7 with a one-day race meet in which all nine of its Quarter Horse races had a starting gate and were 220 yards on the front straightaway of a circular track. Three races had fields of four horses, one had a field of five horses, and five were two-horse match races. Each race had a $2,000 purse.
Only win, place, and show wagering was offered. Pari-mutuel handle figures weren't readily available for the crowd Oxford Downs estimated to be 200. Terry Oliver, a former Thoroughbred trainer in Florida, is Oxford Downs' director of racing.
Florida law requires a Quarter Horse track to have a purse agreement with a horsemen's group whose members are the majority of local owners and trainers. Oxford Downs has a purse contract with the newly formed Central Florida Horsemen's Association, whose members provided horses for the April 7 races.
Oxford Downs did not contact the Florida QHRA. That AQHA affiliate has the purse contract for the annual Quarter Horse meets at Hialeah Park in Florida.
"A track should not be allowed to have a pari-mutuel race that is not approved by a national body, in this case the American Quarter Horse Association, that provides oversight and standards that (provide) critical layers of protection for the horses, jockeys and the public," OBS president Tom Ventura said.
In an April 1 letter to the Marion County commission, Jockeys' Guild national manager Terry Meyocks said his organization has serious concerns about the Oxford Downs track based on information it has received. Meyocks said the major concerns are that Oxford Downs has wooden rails and no apparent safety rails, and that there have been no verifications of the racing surface.
The backstretch of the racing surface is uneven with several humps. Even though opening-day races were on the front straightaway, the backstretch undulations are a concern for the Jockeys' Guild and for OBS and its industry group allies.
"It looks like a field that has been worked on to use as a racetrack, but the backstretch looks more like a motocross course than like a racetrack," Ventura said.
Mendola, however, said Oxford Downs believes its safety standards "exceed the safety of many tracks currently conducting races because it was designed to be in line with proposed safety standards for racing which take greater precautions to protect the horses and jockeys than the current requirements."
The opening date at Oxford Downs fell during the Florida government's 2013-14 fiscal year that ends this June 30. It plans to have 20 race cards, two per day, between July 1 and July 10.
By having that schedule over two fiscal years, Oxford Downs can be eligible to have full-card simulcasts after it has 20 race cards in fiscal 2014-15. It plans by this fall to open a building that will have a poker room and simulcast center.
"We are fighting (Oxford Downs) for the same reasons we fought and won against the pari-mutuel barrel racing at Gretna," Powell said.
The Florida DPMW has allowed Gretna Racing to hold flag-drop races with Quarter Horses and to keep its poker and simulcast operations.
Powell declined to say whether his group plans to file any lawsuits or file complaints to the Florida DPMW challenging any steps it took in granting a racing license to Oxford Downs or asking it to halt any activities.
There are concerns that new low-cost Quarter Horse tracks could take some gaming business away from Florida horse tracks that have been in existence for decades, said Florida HBPA president Phil Combest and executive director Kent Stirling.
Stirling said that could "dramatically curtail the amount of horses–and thus businesses and employees–that would normally be needed to conduct a legitimate race meeting and corresponding breeding industry."