Florida’s only harness track and several Thoroughbred industry executives are making plans for Quarter Horse racing, with potentially lucrative poker rooms serving as part of the attraction.
But The Isle Casino & Racing at Pompano Park won’t start holding quarter horse races next month, as it originally planned. Instead, the Pompano Beach, Fla., harness track is targeting the second half of 2009.
In separate developments, former Gulfstream Park presidents David Romanik and Paul Micucci hope to open a Quarter Horse track near Tallahassee in 2010, while Magna Entertainment Corp. chairman Frank Stronach is mulling future plans for a Quarter Horse venue near Ocala.
Pompano Park on July 23 withdrew its applications to activate its Quarter Horse permit and to expand its daily poker room operation from 12 to 24 hours. Florida law allows a pari-mutuel a maximum 12 hours of poker per day for each racing permit. Pompano Park filed applications on June 30. The Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering later told it that a Quarter Horse permit can be renewed only between Dec. 15 and Jan. 4.
“We will file the applications again in December,” said Michael Bloom, vice president and general manager of Pompano Park, which in 1991 held Florida’s last Quarter Horse races.
“Our main purpose is indeed to get the second 12 hours of poker,” he said. “We will make a major investment for Quarter Horse racing, and hold at least as many race dates as the state requires.”
A Florida law requires any pari-mutuel to hold at least 40 live cards under a permit, with at least eight races per card, if it also wants to be eligible for sending or importing of simulcasts. But another state law suggests a Quarter Horse track is only required to hold just one race card a year to operate a year-round poker room.
“We are looking into the interpretations of these statutes,” said David Roberts, the Florida DPMW’s director.
Pompano Park applied to hold 47 Quarter Horse race cards in separate meets in August 2008 and May-June 2009. It will continue to hold its required annual minimum 140 harness cards, Bloom said. Pompano Park will resurface and re-configure its track for the periods in which it runs Quarter Horse races. Bloom estimates the initial reconfiguring would cost several hundred thousand dollars. Plans for those changes would be one of the factors in a review of Pompano Park’s application, Roberts said.
Some harness owners and trainers have said they don’t like the prospect of moving horses to other sites when Pompano Park holds a Quarter Horse meet, Bloom said.
“But this is a business,” he said, noting the goal of additional poker revenues and the fact that harness racing would retain the track’s attractive winter months.
Adding a Quarter Horse permit apparently would not impact Pompano Park’s year-round simulcasting under its harness permit.
Pompano Park and Florida Thoroughbred tracks compete with tribal casinos, where card rooms are open 24 hours a day. That competition includes blackjack and baccarat at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Fla. The Seminoles on July 17 appealed a Supreme Court of Florida ruling that declared those two card games illegal in Florida.
Florida horse tracks, Greyhound tracks, and jai-alai frontons can have card rooms, only with poker, open 12 hours for each pari-mutuel permit.
Pompano Park’s 38-table poker room is on the second floor of its casino building--and those tables have waiting lines almost every night and many afternoons.
Through last May 31, the first 11 months of Florida’s fiscal year, Pompano Park had $9.4 million in gross poker receipts, according to the Florida DPMW. That was the highest among 24 pari-mutuels that had combined poker receipts of $82.7 million.
Each pari-mutuel pays a state tax of 10% of gross poker receipts--a combination of bets, entry fees and purchases of chips. Sales of drinks and food also are a revenue generator in poker rooms.
On July 1, Mardi Gras Racetrack and Gaming Center in Hallandale Beach, Fla., expanded its poker hours from 12 to 24. The Greyhound track is using a second permit it acquired from Biscayne Kennel Club after that Greyhound track closed in the mid-1990s.
Also on July 1, neighboring Gulfstream Park filed a suit in a state court in Tallahassee that asks that Mardi Gras be restricted to 12 hours of poker. Gulfstream cited a state law that forbids a pari-mutuel to relocate a permit across a county line. Mardi Gras, like Gulfstream Park, is in Broward County, and Biscayne Kennel was in Miami-Dade County.
Through the first 11 months of fiscal 2007-2008, Gulfstream had $3.5 million in poker revenues and Mardi Gras had $2.5 million. Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens, Fla., does not have a poker room.
Stronach on board?
This year’s list of applicants for Quarter Horse permits include Stronach, who on March 19 applied for a permit to build a Quarter Horse track in Marion County near Ocala.
Stronach withdrew that application on June 23. He is considering filing a new application, said Marc Dunbar, an attorney who represents Gulfstream and Magna. Stronach applied in March because a bill pending in the Florida Legislature would have changed some rules for applications filed after June 30, 2008, said Dunbar, a partner in the Pennington Law Firm in Tallahassee.
A main provision of the bill, which did not pass, would have prohibited building a Quarter Horse track within 100 miles of another Florida pari-mutuel--rather than the current 50-mile limit. Stronach is interested in Quarter Horse racing and not a poker room in Marion County, Dunbar said.
Gulfstream, Calder and Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, Fla., have inactive Quarter Horse permits. Gulfstream has no immediate plans to activate its permit, Dunbar said.
Romanik and Micucci have received Florida DPMW approval for a Quarter Horse track in Jefferson County, about 30 miles east of Tallahassee. But that county has rejected their land use application. They have received zoning and land use approvals for a Quarter Horse track in Gadsden County, about 30 miles west of Tallahassee. The Florida DPMW is still reviewing their application.
“We think both are in locations where there would be strong interest in Quarter Horse racing, and we also would have a card room,” Romanik said. “We do not think the market could handle two tracks.”
Both sites are within 50 miles of Greyhound tracks, which could veto their ability to have simulcasting.
“My dream has been to own a racetrack, and this will be about Quarter Horse racing,” Romanik said. “I expect we would have weekend events, and a county-fair like atmosphere.”
Romanik expects it would cost “in the $10 million range” to build a Quarter Horse track. He and Micucci will start seeking investors and funding after one site has all approvals. Micucci was Gulfstream president in parts of 2006 and 2007 and previously was a gaming executive for Magna.
Romanik spent 20 years as general counsel and later president at Gulfstream, before leaving in 2000. He is of counsel to the Pennington firm, which represents Gulfstream and Magna. But neither company is part of the Quarter Horse applications near Tallahassee.