By Eric Mitchell, The Blood-Horse
November 1, 2011
The state of Florida is either on the cutting edge of the pari-mutuel sports industry or being manipulated to fatten the pockets of a few creative investors.
Last month, the Florida Department of Pari-Mutuel Wagering gave approval for a company called Gretna Racing LLC to use a Quarter Horse racing permit to conduct pari-mutuel barrel racing at a venue in Gretna, Fla., a rural Panhandle town of 1,758 people northwest of Tallahassee. Gretna Racing is a partnership comprising Tallahassee attorney and Gulfstream Park lobbyist Marc Dunbar (10%), former Gulfstream Park president David Romanik (10%), Tallahassee attorney Paul McGee (10%), and the Poarch Creek tribe (70%), which is based in Alabama.
In its application Gretna Racing said it plans to hold 40 barrel racing cards between Dec. 1, 2011, and Jan. 15, 2012. Gretna’s pari-mutuel barrel racing meet would be the first of its kind in the country. But that’s not all the permit allows. Any Florida pari-mutuel permit holder that conducts 90% of its approved performances a year can have a poker room that can be open 365 days a year. Gretna is taking it a step further and has just started pursuing the opportunity to offer slot machines as well. The company has approached the Gadsden County Commission about putting a referendum on the 2012 ballot asking voters to allow slot machines at any pari-mutuel business in Gadsden.
Apart from the referendum, a pari-mutuel permit holder must run the minimum number of required events for at least two consecutive years before it can offer slot machines. Using rodeo events to activate a Quarter Horse racing permit continues to be a concern to the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association. Both groups see this as a low-cost alternative for permit holders to open card rooms and not provide any substantive support to the horse industry.
“It looks like they will make a lot of money on a poker room without a lot going to the barrel racers,” said Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida HBPA. “This also could be very detrimental to the future of horse racing in Florida.”
So where do the liberties one can take with a Quarter Horse racing permit stop? Why stop at barrel racing? Several timed rodeo events would likely qualify, such as pole bending or calf roping. All these events involve horses. And how does wagering on barrel racing work? Barrel racing is a timed event where the horse and rider follow a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels that form a triangle. Is this a win-place-show wager or can you have an exacta or trifecta composed of the top two or three finishers by time?
Other questions involve medication. Rick Hardy with the National Barrel Racing Association, the nation’s largest barrel racing organization, said no drug testing is conducted at any of its events. Barrel horses are allowed to run on medications such as Bute and banamine. Hardy said testing has been discussed, but the expense is the biggest barrier.
“We would have to pass the cost directly on to the competitor, and there doesn’t seem to be enough of an outcry or concern about it,” he said.
It means we have the makings of a legalized wagering event and no idea if the horses competing have received substances, therapeutic or otherwise, that would enhance or hinder their performances.
Too many questions.
If some of these issues and concerns are resolved, then maybe Florida has cracked open the door to an entirely new parimutuel venture that could help build up the Quarter Horse industry, provide jobs and income to rural communities, and perhaps create another avenue for Thoroughbreds needing second careers. If not, then it appears the political machine has again been manipulated. Let’s hope against hope the state’s racing industry isn’t being hauled over a barrel.