Florida's administrative court has set a timetable of late November 2012 for a ruling that could determine whether Gretna Racing LLC in Gretna, Fla., can continue to use a Quarter Horse racing permit to hold pari-mutuel barrel racing meets.
The Florida Division of Administrative Hearings finished its hearing on the highly-publicized Gretna case Aug. 23 in Tallahassee. Attorneys who represent the plaintiffs, two Florida Quarter Horse associations, said Administrative Judge Cathy Sellers indicated she plans to issue a ruling by Nov. 24. By then, Gretna will have started its second pari-mutuel barrel racing meet.
If Sellers rules in favor of the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association and the Florida Quarter Horse Breeders and Owners Association, she could not revoke Gretna Racing's licenses or order a halt to racing or poker at the facility in Gretna, which is 25 miles west of Tallahassee. But she could tell the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering and its parent, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, to not renew Gretna's licenses and not issue other licenses for pari-mutuel barrel racing until the overall legality of the activity is reviewed.
A ruling in Gretna Racing's favor would not require any of those reviews or changes.
"We believe that we clearly laid out the facts at the hearings," said Steve Menton, a partner in the law firm of Rutledge, Ecenia and Purnell, which represents the two Quarter Horse associations.
Marc Dunbar, an attorney who represents Gretna Racing, did not return a phone call following the Aug. 23 hearing. He also is a minority owner of Creek Entertainment Gretna, the parent of Gretna Racing.
"(Gretna Racing) used extreme and unprecedented circumstances in an application that was not publicly aired In the legislature or in the rule-making process," Menton said. "They want this activity to get slots and a card room."
Gretna Racing has a Quarter Horse license through June 30, 2013.
Menton's clients and their allies in the Thoroughbred industry are hoping for an administrative ruling that would result in the Florida DPMW not renewing Gretna Racing's license and not issuing any new licenses that would be used for barrel racing.
The Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association was not a plaintiff in the case, but it has joined the two Quarter Horse groups in leading a public relations campaign. They maintain pari-mutuel barrel racing is not legal under Florida laws and that its growth, with poker rooms and possibly casinos, would be a financial threat to Florida's racing and breeding industries. The Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association has been part of that effort.
Gretna Racing used its Quarter Horse license, issued Oct. 19, 2011, to hold 40 rodeo-like barrel racing performances in December 2011 and January 2012. Research by The Blood-Horse indicates there have been no other recent pari-mutuel barrel racing meets in the United States.
In their petition to the administrative court, the Quarter Horse associations maintained that pari-mutuel barrel racing is not authorized under the Florida laws. However, Gretna Racing had Quarter Horses as the majority of horses in its barrel races and thus met a state law's requirement for the breeds that can be used under a Quarter Horse license.
This year the Florida legislature did not pass a bill that would have specifically excluded barrel racing from pari-mutuel horse racing. It is anticipated the sponsors will introduce a similar bill for the 2013 session.
In addition to its three Thoroughbred tracks, Florida has Quarter Horse racing at Hialeah Park and Standardbred racing at Isle Casino & Racing at Pompano Park.
Creek Entertainment Gretna is 70% owned by the Poarch Creek Indian Tribe of Alabama. Dunbar and David Romanik, an attorney and former president of Gulfstream Park
, have ownership stakes in Creek Entertainment Gretna. Dunbar also does legal and lobbying work for Gulfstream and for several companies in the gaming machine industry.
Gretna is in Gadsden County. On Jan. 31 voters there approved a ballot issue that authorizes a casino with slot machines at Gretna Racing. But opening of pari-mutuel casinos outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties would require approval from Florida's legislature and/or courts, and that process would probably take several years.
"(Gretna) and others that might follow would divert money to slots and away from the state's horse racing industry that has an annual $2.2 billion impact," said Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida HBPA.
That estimate is based on a 2005 study by accounting firm Deloitte. Stirling noted that 1,000 or more horses often race at a Thoroughbred meet or a traditional Quarter Horse meet.
"From what we heard about Gretna you can have a barrel racing meet with only 40 horses," he said, noting that the number of jobs is also significantly lower.
Total wagering on Gretna's races for 40 cards was only $43,514, according to the Florida DPMW. "But the state had to administer it and have people there," Stirling said.
Gretna Racing's website shows it will have pari-mutuel barrel racing on 10 weekends between September 2012 and June 2013.