Florida's Other Fiasco - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the July 13, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell One reason citizens get frustrated with government and bureaucracy is the gamesmanship played with definitions and the meaning of words and phrases. Arguments are poured across reams of paper over minor points while the obvious is obscured and often lost entirely.

A clear example of this can be found in the state of Florida’s mishandling of the pari-mutuel Quarter Horse license held by Gretna Racing. The company, co-owned by savvy attorneys David Romanik (former president of Gulfstream Park) and Gulfstream lobbyist Marc Dunbar, convinced the state in 2011 that barrel racing qualified as “horse racing” under state law and therefore could be run as a pari-mutuel event.

By activating its license with a 40-race meet beginning on Dec. 1, 2011, the company was also allowed to open a card room. Romanik and Dunbar are minority owners. The pari-mutuel application lists the Poarch Creek Tribe of Atmore, Ala., as 70% owner. The tribe reportedly also owns most of the land at the barrel racing facility in Gretna in the panhandle county of Gadsden.

The state Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering’s endorsement of pari-mutuel barrel racing was challenged by the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association and the Florida Quarter Horse Breeders and Owners Association.

Administrative Law Judge John G. Van Laningham ruled in favor of the associations, stating Gretna-style “barrel match racing,” which was essentially having two horses run the cloverleaf pattern simultaneously in side-by-side arenas, does not meet the definition of “horse racing” as it was traditionally envisioned in the Florida Constitution.

Traditional racing, according to Van Laningham’s ruling, meant multiple horses starting from a single starting gate and proceeding en masse toward a common finish line.

Gretna came back and reapplied for its dates, this time with a new spin and no barrels. Now the company wants to conduct “flag-drop” match races with at least two horses running at least 100 yards, according to the consent order issued by the DPMW in June.

“Our legal team is talking with Department of Business Regulation (the state department of which DPMW is a part),” said veterinarian Dr. Steve Fisch, president of the FQHRA. “We want to understand how they came to the conclusion that ‘flag-drop’ racing is pari-mutuel racing. The ruling states it must be any horse racing the AQHA or other authority would approve. This would not be approved.”

What is astounding is that the state’s pari-mutuel gatekeepers continue paving low-budget ways for Gretna to activate its license so it can open up a card room and be poised for slot machines, should that door be opened down the road. In January 2011 Gadsden County voters approved allowing slot machines at the Creek Entertainment Gretna facility.

The North Florida Horsemen’s Association says the Gretna business is all about growing horse racing in the panhandle. But it’s racing in the Wild West; no sanctioned rules, no accredited racing officials, no requirement to record results, no specifications the racing surface has to meet, no mandated drug testing, no identified scale of weights, no sanctioned rules on disqualifications...the list goes on.

Follow the money to find out what it is really all about. Year-to-date total handle on Gretna Racing’s events through April 2013 totaled $7,619. Meanwhile, gross receipts for Gretna’s card room reached $1,757,464, or 55% of what Calder Casino & Race Course’s card room grossed during the same period.

If Gadsden wants a casino, it should lobby the legislature to get one. In the meantime, the DPMW should do what it is supposed to do: apply existing law evenly and fairly across all pari-mutuel businesses. It can start with Gretna.

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