Florida OKs Pari-Mutuel Barrel Racing Meet

Gretna Racing plans to begin its barrel racing meet Dec. 1.

The Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering late in the afternoon Oct. 19 approved an application by Gretna Racing LLC to use its Quarter Horse permit to conduct pari-mutuel barrel racing at its facility in Gretna, Fla., about 25 miles west of Tallahassee,

Gretna Racing’s 40-race card meet, which it plans to begin on Dec. 1, 2011, would be the first pari-mutuel barrel racing in Florida. Gretna Racing also will have a year-round poker room with Dec. 17 as the planned opening date, said Marc Dunbar, a Tallahassee attorney who is a 10% owner of Gretna Racing.

Two prominent Florida Thoroughbred horsemen’s associations were among groups that had asked the Florida DPMW to not allow Gretna Racing to use its Quarter Horse permit for pari-mutuel barrel racing. Barrel racing is a rodeo-like event in a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels. It is popular in several parts of Florida, and in numerous other states.

The National Barrel Horse Association “has no knowledge of any pari-mutuel barrel racing” in any state, according to Rick Hardy, membership director of that Augusta, Ga.-based organization.

The Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association sent letters to the Florida DPMW and its parent agency the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, asking them to reject Gretna Racing’s application. The two Thoroughbred groups were joined in that opposition by the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association. All three associations maintain that pari-mutuel barrel racing is not authorized under the state’s laws.

Those three groups also expressed concerns that approval of the Gretna Racing application could lead other Quarter Horse permit holders to use barrel racing as a low-cost route to opening potentially lucrative poker rooms.

The Florida DPMW’s two-page notice of a pari-mutuel license approval did not include the words “barrel racing.”  Dunbar said Gretna Racing will hold barrel racing, as specified in the application it filed Sept. 30.

The DPMW notice provided no indication of any precedent for future approvals of pari-mutuel barrel racing for holders of Quarter Horse permits.

The application lists the Poarch Creek Tribe, based in Atmore, Ala., as 70% owner of Gretna Racing. That American Indian tribe owns most of the land at the facility in Gretna.

The application lists David Romanik, a former Gulfstream Park president, and Paul McGee, a Tallahassee attorney, each with 10% ownership. Dunbar, a partner in the Pennington Law Firm in Tallahassee, also is a lobbyist for Gulfstream Park and for several gaming equipment companies.  Gulfstream is not affiliated with Gretna Racing.

Some observers felt that a central issue for the Florida DPMW would be reviewing the definitions of horse racing and Quarter Horse racing in Florida pari-mutuel laws to determine if Gretna Racing’s intended use of Quarter Horses makes barrel racing an eligible event. Those laws require a Quarter Horse meet to have at least half its races as Quarter Horse races. Other races in mixed meets under a Quarter Horse permit can include Thoroughbreds and other designated breeds.

The Florida DPMW approval of the application raises the issue of what activities are permissible under a Quarter Horse permit or any other pari-mutuel permit in Florida.  Any Florida pari-mutuel permit holder that conducts at least the minimum number of required performances a year can have a poker room that can be open 365 days a year. Poker is the main source of revenue growth at many non-horse pari-mutuel facilities in Florida

In a Sept. 18 letter to the Florida DPMW, Florida HBPA executive director Kent Stirling wrote.  “We remind you that Gulfstream Park, Pompano Park, Tampa Bay Downs, Hialeah Park, and the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association all have Quarter Horse licenses.”

He later told The Blood-Horse that the Florida HBPA is hoping to prevent any efforts by tracks to substitute low-cost barrel racing for conventional race meets while keeping poker rooms and, in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, casinos.

"I'm not really surprised by this decision,” Stirling said. “After all, this is Florida. These three guys spent a couple of years working on this. It looks like they will make a lot of money on a poker room, without a lot going to the barrel racers. This also could be very detrimental to the future of horse racing in Florida."

In its application, Gretna Racing said it plans to hold 40 barrel racing cards between Dec. 1, 2011, and Jan. 15, 2012.

Gretna Racing has a purse agreement with the North Florida Horsemen’s Association. Wesley Cox, a board member of that group which was formed last year, said he expects that at least 80% of the horses would be Quarter Horses in barrel races at Gretna.

In June 2010, the Florida DBPR issued Gretna Racing a permit to hold barrel racing on a non pari-mutuel basis.