Recent Hialeah Park Meet Sends Wrong Chills

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In recent years I have been fortunate to make three trips to the winter Quarter Horse meet at Hialeah Park, where even though the breed changed, the walls-adorned with famous silks and photos of famous people-still told stories.

And those walls echoed with new stories, specifically cheers of young fans enthusiastically encouraging horses, even sprinting with horses through the stretch.

Hialeah president John Brunetti Jr., pumped $60 million into the racing facility to bring modern amenities to one of racing's most hallowed tracks. Here was a live meet bringing in new, young fans with a passion for racing. Taken as a whole, the experience sent chills. The 2015-2016 meet attracted nearly $2 million in handle.

This year Hialeah offered a much different race meet, racing not recognized by the American Quarter Horse Association or reported by Equibase. For many, this meet created chills of concern as Hialeah rolled out a series of match races to meet its minimum state racing requirements to retain its casino license.

According to a spokesperson for the Pari-Mutuel Division of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, total handle on this "racing" from May 31-June 25 was $4,116. That number suggests that as far as the public was concerned, there was no Quarter Horse Racing at Hialeah.

Brunetti couldn't be reached, but last month told BloodHorse the new approach reduced racing costs.  

Ron Smith, president of the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association that put on the Hialeah meets from 2009-16, said this year's meet should concern the entire industry.

"It's not just the Florida Quarter Horse industry," Smith said. "We think that we are the guinea pigs. We believe that if they can pull this off in Florida, and eliminate us, it will go all over the country and it will not just be Quarter Horses, it will be Thoroughbreds too."

After committing about $5 million in purses a year to the meet in recent years, Brunetti and the horsemen failed to reach an agreement ahead of a 2016-17 winter meet. The track instead turned to the South Florida Quarter Horse Association; several of that group's founders are also part of the "low-cost" Gretna Racing.

While tracks and horsemen have always haggled, a difference in Florida compared with other racing states is the lack of a racing commission to step in during such disputes, noted Bill White, who heads the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents the interests of Thoroughbred horsemen.

"The closest thing we have is the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering," White said. "They view themselves as a licensing organization and they are reluctant to become involved in any disputes. That's why pretty much every dispute in Florida ends up in court."

One factor in the corner of Florida Thoroughbred horsemen, White said, is the law specifically requires tracks to reach agreements with a majority horsemen's group. He said the law is not as specific when it comes to Quarter Horse racing. With that in mind, Smith's group is working to change and update laws on the Quarter Horse side in the state.


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