Voters OK Slots at Florida Barrel Racing Site

Voters OK Slots at Florida Barrel Racing Site
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

Voters in Gadsden County, Fla., Jan. 31 approved a ballot issue that authorizes a casino with slot machines at Gretna Racing, the Gretna facility that Jan. 16 completed the first pari-mutuel barrel racing meet in Florida.

Also on Jan. 31 voters in Washington County, Fla., approved a ballot issue that authorizes a casino with slot machines at Ebro Greyhound Park in Ebro, which is about 100 miles west of Tallahassee.

The legality of opening a casino at either site and of the future operation and expansion of pari-mutuel barrel racing in Florida are among issues under review by the state's legislature, its attorney general, and several regulatory agencies.

The Gadsden County vote was 6,042-3,558 in favor of allowing slots at Gretna Racing, which is about 25 miles west of Tallahassee in the Florida Panhandle.

Research by The Blood-Horse indicates there have been no other recent pari-mutuel barrel racing meets in the United States. Gretna Racing held its barrel racing meet under a Quarter Horse license issued Oct. 19, 2011, by the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.

Two Florida Quarter Horse associations, supported by two of the state’s Thoroughbred associations, maintain that pari-mutuel barrel racing is not legal under Florida law. They are asking the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings to revoke Gretna Racing’s licenses for Quarter Horse racing and for a poker room (related story). That state agency has scheduled a hearing for March 28-30.

Creek Entertainment Gretna, which owns and operates Gretna Racing, is 70% owned by the Poarch Creek Indian Tribe of Alabama. Marc Dunbar, an attorney and lobbyist in Tallahassee, and David Romanik, an attorney and former president of Gulfstream Park, each own 10% of Creek Entertainment Gretna.

In a statement following release of election results Jan. 31, James Dorris, president and chief executive officer of the Poarch Creek Tribe Gaming Authority, said he expects a Gretna Racing casino would create about 1,500 jobs in Gadsden County.

“With the passing of the referendum, we believe we have completed the requirement set up in the statutes to have slot machines at our Gretna facility,” Doris said. “We will now work through the licensing process with the State of Florida and deal with those who will erect legal obstacles to oppose the project.”

The United Florida Horsemen, a coalition led by Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse associations, has been emphasizing that the traditional Quarter Horse meet at Hialeah Park, compared with barrel racing at Gretna, has created considerably more jobs as well as wagering and revenue for Florida. They maintain that barrel racing is a low-cost way to obtain poker licenses, and perhaps casinos, to compete with established horse tracks and their industries.

In a statement issued following the Gadsden County vote, the United Florida Horsemen said: “Notwithstanding the fact that the Gadsden County slots referendum was held based on the unlawful premise of ‘pari-mutuel barrel racing,’ the travesty is that, regardless of tonight’s outcome, the people of Gadsden County and the City of Gretna are being cheated out of exponentially jobs and long-term economic development they could have had if Gretna Racing  were holding legitimate Quarter Horse racing instead.”

Members of the United Florida Horsemen include the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association, the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association, the Florida Quarter Horse Breeders and Owners Association, the Florida Standardbred Owners and Breeders Association, and the Florida Barrel Horse Association.

The two Quarter Horse associations are plaintiffs in the petition to the Division of Administrative Hearings.

A more immediate issue is that on Jan. 12 Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi issued an advisory opinion that the Florida DPMW and its parent Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation cannot issue a casino license to the facilities in Gretna and Ebro or in any counties other than Miami-Dade and Broward. Bondi noted that a 2004 constitutional amendment and a follow-up 2006 state law allow casinos and slot machines only at pari-mutuels in those two southeast counties.

Officials of the Florida DBPR said the agency intends to abide by Bondi’s opinion. However, that opinion is not binding, and there are expectations Gretna Racing will file a lawsuit to challenge it.

Meanwhile, the Florida legislature is considering a bill that would allow the government of any county in the state to authorize a referendum in which voters would determine whether the county’s pari-mutuel facilities could have slot machines. If such a bill is passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott, it apparently would override Bondi’s Jan.12 opinion. A separate bill would amend some definitions of racing in Florida.

Gretna Racing has been able to hold pari-mutuel barrel racing, rather than traditional flat track Quarter Horse racing, because Florida laws specify the breeds of horses but not the types of races that must be held with horse racing licenses. It has abided by a requirement to have Quarter Horses in at least half of its races.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Dennis Jones states that “horse racing does not include steeplechases, hurdle races, barrel racing, timed events, pole pending, or any other rodeo” or related events. The bill also states that Quarter Horse racing may be conducted only “on a straight path on a traditional oval or straight path.”

If passed, the bill would become effective July 1, 2012. Jones said he is uncertain whether Gretna Racing would be able to continue to have pari-mutuel barrel racing. The legislature is scheduled to end its 2012 regular session March 9.

The Florida DBPR and Florida DPMW have scheduled a public hearing March 13 on issues related to definitions in Florida pari-mutuel racing laws.
 

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