Ruling Delayed on Barrel Racing in Florida

Ruling Delayed on Barrel Racing in Florida
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Barrel Racing

The Florida Division of Administrative Hearings ended a four-day hearing June 29 without issuing a ruling on whether Gretna Racing LLC in Gretna, Fla., can continue to use a Quarter Horse racing license to hold pari-mutuel barrel racing meets.

The Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association and the Florida Quarter Horse Breeders and Owners Association are asking the Division of Administrative Hearings to order the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering to revoke the Quarter Horse and poker room licenses it approved last year for Gretna Racing.

The Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association are among groups that maintain that pari-mutuel barrel racing is not permissible under Florida laws. They are not plaintiffs in the administrative hearing, but they support the two Quarter Horse associations that filed the case last Nov. 10.

Administrative Judge Cathy Sellers will resume the hearing Aug. 22  in Tallahassee. A ruling also would determine or at least provide guidance on whether the Florida DPMW can issue other racing licenses that could be used for pari-mutuel barrel racing.

If Sellers concludes the hearing in late August, she would have 60 days--until late October--to issue a ruling. By then Gretna Racing would be preparing for its second race meet, which would begin this December.

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 at its facility about 25 miles west of Tallahassee. Research by The Blood-Horse indicates there have been no other recent pari-mutuel barrel racing meets in the United States.

In their petition, the plaintiffs emphasized their view that pari-mutuel barrel racing is not authorized under Florida laws and maintained that the DPMW did not take all required steps in reviewing Gretna Racing’s applications. However, Gretna Racing had Quarter Horses as the majority of horses in its barrel races and thus met a state 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 that sponsors will introduce a similar bill for the 2013 session.

Officials of the Florida HBPA declined comment concerning Sellers’ extension of the hearing. Marc Dunbar, a Tallahassee attorney and a part owner of Creek Entertainment Gretna, which operates Gretna Racing, did not return several phone calls amid the late June hearing.

In a press release June 25, the Florida HBPA reiterated its concern that any expansion of low-cost pari-mutuel barrel racing, combined with poker and perhaps casinos, could siphon considerable gaming dollars from Florida’s racetracks and have a substantial impact on the state's breeding industry. Florida HBPA executive director Kent Stirling noted that the state’s horse racing industry has 50,000 jobs and has an annual economic impact of $2.2 billion.

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.

In March 2012 the Florida DPMW approved Quarter Horse licenses licenses for the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co., South Marion County Real Estate, and Hamilton Downs in Jasper. Information on those organizations’ plans was not readily available. Pending approvals that would probably be needed from Florida’s legislature and courts, Creek Entertainment Gretna is hoping it will be able to have a casino with Las Vegas-style slot machines at Gretna Racing.

On Jan. 31, voters in Gadsden County, where Gretna Racing is located, approved a ballot issue that authorizes a casino with slot machines at Gretna Racing. However, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi issued an advisory opinion that the Florida DPMW and its parent, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, cannot approve a casino license for pari-mutuel facilities in Gadsden or in any counties other than Miami-Dade and Broward.

She noted that a 2004 constitutional amendment and a follow-up 2006 state law allow casinos and slot machines only at pari-mutuel facilities in those two southeast Florida counties.

Officials of the Florida DBPR have said they intend to abide by Bondi’s decision even though it is not binding. Florida courts and the Florida legislature have not determined whether pari-mutuel facilities throughout the state can have casinos.

Creek Entertainment Gretna is majority owned by the Poarch Creek Indian Tribe of Alabama. Dunbar and David Romanik, an attorney and former president of Gulfstream Park, each own 10% of Creek Entertainment Gretna. Separately, Dunbar does legal and lobbying work for Gulfstream and for several companies in the gaming machine industry.

One issue in the Gretna Racing controversy is the extent to which Dunbar may have used political influence to gain Florida DPMW approval of Gretna’s racing license. In a May 5 article the Miami Herald reported on Dunbar’s ties to Steve MacNamara, who was then the chief of staff for Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

The article said: "In an email to MacNamara in August (2011), Marc Dunbar, a lawyer and part-owner of a horse track in Gadsden County, complained about the (DPMW) staff and hoped MacNamara could get them into shape. MacNamara had worked together at Dunbar’s law firm and listed the firm as a source of income on his financial disclosure forms as recently as 2010."

In August 2011 Gretna Racing had a Quarter Horse permit and was preparing to file for a license.

MacNamara resigned one day after publication of the article, which focused on his business activities with former colleagues while working in Scott’s office.

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