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Florida’s Gretna Pari-Mutuel Barrel Racing License Approval Turns State Into Casino “Whack-A-Mole”

By Kent H. Stirling

November 21, 2011

 

Only Florida could permit something like this to legally take place.  But I live in Florida and we are on the verge of having our first pari-mutuel barrel racing facility in the town of Gretna in northern Florida, and so far it is completely legal according to the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel  Wagering  (DPMW).

 

You might ask yourself, “Boy, some people in Florida must really love watching girls barrel race.”  Or possibly you might ask, “What in the heck is barrel racing, and how do I wager on it?”  I will let you read this article and you can determine for yourself if you think barrel racing came to Florida because those responsible for it are of an altruistic nature and love the idea of giving more opportunities for young women to barrel race, or is this just nothing more than a get-rich-quick scheme to immediately get slots and a card room?

 

But just what is barrel racing?  It is a timed event where the participants, usually young women, race their horses around 3 barrels in a clover leaf pattern as fast as they can.  It usually takes place at Western Horse Shows or at actual rodeos.  Barrel racers usually race for prizes, and never are we aware of the public legally wagering on the outcome of these barrel races.  In fact, the National Barrel Horse Association, the world’s largest with over 24,000 members, has condemned this exploitation of young girls as objects to be wagered  upon.

 

So how did this travesty begin?  Well, it all began with a number of quarter horse permits being issued in Florida three or four years ago.  Most of them were handled by Gulfstream Park lobbyist/lawyer, Marc Dunbar.  Dunbar then teamed up with Paul Micucci and David Romanik who had both been former Presidents at Gulfstream Park, each for a very short period of time, before being fired.

 

In 2008, the trio acquired some property in Jefferson County -a North Florida county that had already approved pari-mutuel wagering long ago for the creation of the Jefferson County Kennel Club.  Our boys  then tried to have the Jefferson County Commissioners  permit them to have a Quarter Horse race track  with a lounge, restaurant, bowling alley and, of course, a card room.  Oh, and they only wanted to run six days of Quarter Horse racing per year, something that a lot of folks at the time thought was strange, since their dog track ran over 200 days of racing a year to operate a profitable card room.  In Florida, once you begin operating your pari-mutuel race meet, you are immediately permitted a card room.

 

According to an article on the Florida Baptist Witness web site about this 2008 commission hearing, Dunbar introduced Romanik as the “horsemen” that came up with the idea for the then-proposed Jefferson Downs Quarter Horse Track.    Romanik then stated that he was “just interested in the horse part of this business.”  Apparently,  all six days of it.

 

One of the speakers at that meeting, David Hall, asked,  “Are they just building a horse track as they are saying, or is there more behind it?”

 

The next citizen to speak, a pastor named, John Wesley, spoke about the promised jobs this track would bring and facetiously stated, “I guess we need the School Board to put into our curriculum bartending and card dealing so our kids will have a future in our county.”

 

Others mentioned in the article spoke to the “fast tracking” of this application, and to the rumored threat of a lawsuit by the “powerful attorney” Dunbar if the Commission didn’t move forward their application.

 

It was all downhill for our Gulfstream boys after that, and the commission voted 4-1 to deny the permit.  A picture accompanying the article was priceless as it showed a stunned and dejected Dunbar and Romanik after the negative vote.  As to appealing the outcome of the vote, Romanik told the Tallahassee Democrat, “I really have to think about it and assess what happened.”

 

Our “doctors,”  “MD” and “DR,”  then soon began operating in another nearby county in North Florida, Gadsden County.   This time they rolled out the same old promises to the people of Gretna but did so apparently without  Micucci.  Their financial backing came from the Poarch Band of the Creek Indians from Alabama.  These Indians already owned the Pensacola Greyhound Track in the Panhandle, and had spent a million dollars to buy some land in the town of Gretna, as Equestrian Land Holdings, LLC.  Our heroes now added another lobbyist, Gene McGee, and the three of them each held 10% of their new venture called “Gretna Racing LLC” while the Poarch Indians retained the other 70%.

 

Again they promised the people of Gretna pretty much the same thing as they had in Jefferson County, but without the bowling alley.  For several years now, they have promised the people of Gretna a Quarter Horse track without ever constructing it.  In September of this year, they applied to the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering (DPMW) for their consent to conduct, not six days, but instead just two days of Quarter Horse racing, one to be held on December 17th and one in June.  This application was kicked back to them by the DPMW for deficiencies, but Dunbar made it known that there would be no stopping his group.  Since there seems to be nothing in Florida Statutes that would limit a quarter horse permit holder to actually running legitimate Quarter Horse races, he might have been right.

 

One of Gretna’s  glaring application deficiencies was that it had no signed contract with the majority horsemen’s group expected to be racing (?) at its facility as mandated by the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978.  Romanik solved this little problem by simply forming his own horsemen’s organization, The “North Florida Horsemen’s Association,”  whose membership and Board of Directors would be interesting to know.

 

With the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering Director now having been fired during this time, many letters from individuals and horsemen’s groups were sent to Ken Lawson the Secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) asking him not to permit barrel racing in Florida under a Quarter Horse license.  Why horsemen were told to send our letters to the DBPR and not the DPMW, I do not know.  In any event, both the Florida and Tampa Bay Downs HBPAs sent letters along with the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders, the Florida Standardbred Breeders, the Florida Quarter Horse Association and the American Quarter Horse Association, and even the aforementioned National Barrel Horse Association (NBHA) among others.

 

As I pointed out in the FHBPA letter to Secretary Lawson, every track in Florida, except for Calder, owns a  quarter horse permit.  I further stated, “The loss of jobs to the State of Florida could be monumental  if this application is approved and other tracks rush through the now open door with their barrel racing applications.” In other words, this could be the end of horse racing as we know it in Florida, inasmuch  as all tracks are funded by card rooms and most also by  slot revenue.

 

I know it’s amazing, but I am unaware of any race track in Florida that opposed  the DBPR’s approval of this  application for barrel racing.

 

As previously mentioned the National Barrel Horse Association (NBHA) then officially came out in opposition to the Gretna facility being permitted to conduct pari-mutuel barrel racing on young females. The NBHA Southeastern Director, Paul Stanley strongly stated, “There is no place for betting where there are children competing.”

 

According to the letter the DBPR sent me in response to my letter on behalf of the FHBPA, the DPMW had “90 days to approve or deny the application.”  That would mean the Division had until at least the end of December to act on this application.  This could be a problem, because our boys had announced that their first day of barrel racing would be December 1st.  They and their Indian partners actually had printed ads with a picture of a young female barrel racer and information from their “North Florida Horsemen Association” explaining they were having barrel racing for total prize money of “$38,000 NFHA Barrel Race Competition 10 days 19 Performing 8 horses per performance”  Those are their actual words and lack of punctuation from the poorly written ad.

 

By mid-October the DPMW signed off on the Gretna application for barrel racing.  This would then automatically allow Gretna to open their card room after they began pari-mutuel barrel racing on December  1, 2012.  But Dunbar and Romanik were not done yet.  They then immediately asked the Gadsden County Commissioners to approve slot machines at their facility.  Florida has statutes that mandate that horse purses and monies for breeders’ awards  be funded from alternative gaming such as  card rooms and slots.  But, alas, for barrel racing there are no mandatory requirements for any such funding.  I doubt this came as a surprise to Romanik and Dunbar.

 

On November 1st, the Gadsden County Commission voted unanimously to approve “a January vote to allow slot machines in the impoverished county” reported  the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau. The referendum will appear on the January 31, 2012 Republican Presidential Preference Ballot.  The issue of whether this election will even be legal has recently come to light, given the drastic changes effected to Florida’s voting laws this year.

The days that immediately followed Gadsden’s misguided vote are reminiscent of “Whack-A-Mole,” the child’s game that features a series of holes through which moles pop their heads out.  When you hit the mole on the head with a hammer, another mole invariably pops out of another hole and then you hit that one, and on and on.   The reality is that, with the Gadsden vote, our heroes have made Florida one big game of Whack-A-Mole for horsemen, because now other obscure pari-mutuels are popping up all over the state and asking for barrel racing permits at their own facilities.

 

Apparently, our “doctors” have determined that horsemen are purse-gobbling “parasites on the industry” that need to be removed from their altruistic tracks altogether, and they are now performing the operation for free (?).

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