There may be more opportunities for Thoroughbreds to race in Florida in the coming years as at least one proposed Quarter Horse track has received a permit from the state, with a second such facility under consideration for similar licensing.
The owner of the proposed Hamilton Downs in Jasper has received from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering a permit for Quarter Horse racing, which, if all state regulations are met, allows for up to 50% of all daily races to be filled by Thoroughbreds.
And a group that includes former Gulfstream Park executives David Romanik and Paul Micucci has applied to operate a Quarter Horse facility in the Eastern Panhandle-area location of Jefferson County.
Hamilton Downs is proposed by Richmond Entertainment, which also owns the Hamilton Jai Alai and Poker facility in Jasper that opened in 2005. That facility is located near Interstate 75 just south of the Florida-Georgia border. The horse track will be built on separate land about 10 miles north.
“They are hopeful that they can be up and running in about one year,” said David Roberts, director of the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.
Glenn Richards, who heads Richmond Entertainment, said if everything goes according to plan, he plans to break ground on the new $15-million facility by the end of January 2008, and be racing by the end of next year."It’s going to be a mixed meet. That’s the only way we feel it can be successful," said Richards, a real estate developer from nearby Jacksonville. "Have a mixed meet, and simulcast it out."
Richards said about one million people live within an hour's drive of his chosen location, and the success of his existing operation's poker room gives him the confidence horse racing will do well. He notes that Georgia has no forms of legalized gambling other than a state lottery.
"We feel there is a right market there," he said. "Georgia has a lot of people with no place to gamble. And Atlanta is only three hours away."
The proposed design of the track includes a one-mile track with a 550-yard chute for Quarter Horse races, with a seating area capable of holding 3,000 patrons.
Roberts said the decision on the Jefferson County permit should come “very soon.” He said preliminary discussions with the developers indicated a half-mile track would be built there.
“They seem to be gearing more toward Quarter Horse racing,” said Roberts, who noted the group indicated it would like to add a poker cardroom.
Attempts by The Blood-Horse to reach either Romanik or Micucci were unsuccessful. Both were former presidents of Gulfstream, and Romanik, an attorney, was also affiliated with the former Hialeah Park as general counsel.
Richard Hancock, executive vice president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners' Association, said he hasn’t had any discussions with the backers of the new Quarter Horse endeavors.
“I wish them luck, and certainly there are plenty of horses to run at every level,” he said. “Hopefully, they can get the purses up to the level where horsemen can get a return on their investment. Horse racing draws crowds, and they will have to build on it. We are willing to help them in whatever we can.”
Florida law says Quarter Horse permit-holders must each year present 40 live dates of at least eight races in order to operate interstate simulcasting and cardrooms.
The percentage of Thoroughbred racing is allowed as long as no pari-mutuel facility located within 50 air miles objects. An objection is unlikely in the case of Hamilton Downs, Roberts said, since the only facility within 50 miles is its sister jai alai operation. In the case of the proposed Jefferson County facility, the Jefferson County Kennel Club, a Greyhound track, would have to grant approval.
Roberts said it is unlikely any new Thoroughbred permits would be issued by the state under current statutes, which prohibit such licensing to a location within 100 miles of an existing pari-mutuel facility. Florida currently has three Thoroughbred tracks, a harness track, 16 Greyhound tracks, and six jai alai frontons.
There are no such restrictions on Quarter Horse permits. “Hypothetically, you could put a Quarter Horse track next to Gulfstream Park,” he said.
Quarter Horse racing was last held in Florida in 1991 at Pompano Park. Now strictly a harness track with slots, Pompano Park still holds an inactive Quarter Horse license. Others holding inactive Quarter Horse permits in Florida include Gulfstream, Ocala Breeders’ Sale Co., and Tampa Bay Downs.
Hialeah’s Thoroughbred permit was revoked by the state in 2003, and Roberts said all appeals have upheld the revocation. A separate civil lawsuit is still ongoing in which Hialeah is suing the state for illegally taking property.