Florida Horsemen Say Permit Threatens Racing

An application for barrel racing has horsemen's groups on edge about racing permits.

A Florida Quarter Horse permitholder's request to use its license to conduct pari-mutuel barrel racing events has generated concern and attracted criticism from state Thoroughbred racing leaders.

Gretna Racing LLC has asked the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering for permission to use its license for barrel racing beginning Dec. 1, 2011. Gretna is a town of about 1,750 people located in the Florida panhandle, northwest of Tallahassee.

Barrel racing is a rodeo-like event in which a horse and rider are timed racing in a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels. Pari-mutuel wagering commonly isn't offered on the sport. If the Gretna company is allowed to use its license in this way, the facility would also be allowed to open a poker room.

A spokeswoman for the Florida DPMW said Oct. 4 “this is a unique issue, and a determination has not been made” on whether barrel racing is permissible under a Quarter Horse permit in Florida.

The Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association have asked the Florida DPMW to not approve the application for barrel racing by Gretna Racing based on their views that Florida laws on Quarter Horse racing limit that sport to conventional Quarter Horse races. Barrel racing is held as a non pari-mutuel event at numerous sites in northwestern Florida and other parts of the state.

Wesley Cox, a board member of the North Florida Horsemen’s Association, said he expects that at least 80% of the horses would be Quarter Horses in barrel races at Gretna. Cox’s organization has a purse agreement under which its members would provide horses to Gretna Racing; he said he expects that some retired Thoroughbreds could be in barrel races at Gretna.

In a Sept. 18 letter to the Florida DPMW, Florida HBPA executive director Kent Stirling said his organization is concerned that granting Gretna Racing’s request “would open the door to other pari-mutuel licensees that currently operate live horse racing to do the same with their Quarter Horse licenses. 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.”

Stirling told The Blood-Horse the Florida HBPA is hoping to prevent any future 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.

Gretna Racing’s amended application, filed Sept. 30, 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 its application, Gretna Racing said it plans to have a poker room.

The application lists the Poarch Creek Tribe, based in Atmore, Ala., as 70% owner of Gretna Racing. The American Indian tribe owns most of the land at the facility in Gretna, which is about 25 miles west of Tallahassee. It is land the Poarch Creeks purchased, and is thus not tribal land on which they could build a casino under federal laws.

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

Dunbar said Gretna Racing has a policy of not commenting on pending regulatory applications.

Gretna Racing plans to hold 40 barrel racing cards between Dec. 1, 2011, and Jan. 15, 2012. An important question is whether the Florida DPMW will have time to approve or deny Gretna Racing’s application before Dec. 1.

The Florida DPMW has 30 days, starting Sept. 30, to review the application and determine if it is complete. If it deems an application complete, it has up to 90 days to approve or deny it.

A central issue is an interpretation of 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.

Dr. Steven Fisch, a veterinarian who is president of the Florida QHRA, said Gretna’s planned barrel racing meet “is an attempt to skirt the rules and have poker.” The Florida QHRA was unsuccessful in its attempt to negotiate a purse agreement with Gretna Racing.

Cox said the North Florida Horsemen's Association, which was formed last year, reached agreement with Gretna Racing “because we also will provide horses for the non pari-mutuel events they plan to hold the rest of the year.”

“They want to make it a year-round equestrian center,” said Cox, who breeds and owns horses at a ranch in Quincy, Fla.

Hialeah Park is the only Florida track that holds Quarter Horse meets. It will hold its third meet from Dec. 10, 2011, through Feb. 16, 2012.

For the third consecutive meet, Hialeah has a purse agreement with the Florida QHRA. Also for the third straight meet, Hialeah does not plan to hold any Thoroughbred races under its Quarter Horse permit.

Hialeah is holding Quarter Horse meets primarily because a 2010 Florida law makes it eligible to have a casino with Las Vegas-style slot machines if it holds those meets. A state appeals court is considering a lawsuit by three other Miami-area pari-mutuels that challenges Hialeah’s legal right to have a casino.