A barrel racing demonstration will take place Wednesday in Gretna, a show of what’s to come a month later when pari-mutuel wagering begins at the site off Interstate 10 in Gadsden County.
No bets will be taken this week on the hoof-pounding, clover-leaf-patterned sprints around obstacles, but in December there will be gambling on barrel racing and poker hands at the Creek Entertainment Gretna development.
Other contests going on now or soon to start in court and at state regulatory agencies are just as competitive and have millions of dollars at stake, including a January county-wide vote to approve slot machines in Gadsden County.
Advocates of barrel racing see jobs for impoverished Gadsden County, further development of horse and entertainment industries in Gretna, and millions of dollars for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and their minority-owner partners.
Opponents see a move away from their own quarter horse racing institutions and businesses and bemoan what they say could be developing in Gadsden County. They say traditional quarter horse racing on a flat track would lead to a breeding industry growing around the track and much larger economic impact.
“This was not the way we envisioned this happening,” said Steve Fisch, a Tallahassee veterinarian and president of the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association. “If you open the door to allow a substitute for quarter horse races, you’ve really just opened the door” for barrel racing to replace quarter horse and thoroughbred racing all around the state.
Dueling horse associations representing different constituencies — quarter horses, thoroughbreds and barrel racers — are filling up the email inboxes of elected officials and regulators and flooding Internet forums.
Former state Sen. Al Lawson sponsored amendments that expanded the opportunity for pari-mutuel permits when he was in the Legislature in 2010. He says the conflict is about dollars.
“The beef is who’s going to get the money. I think that’s what the big issue is about,” Lawson said. “I think the quarter horse people think the other tracks might want to do more barrel racing and that would be money not coming to them.”
Fisch agrees that’s a fear.
“If you open the door to allow a substitute for quarter horses races, you’ve really just opened the door (to fewer horses needed for barrel racing),” Fisch said. “It’s all about getting rid of the horses.”
But those in Gadsden County representing the horses that will race at the Gretna facility, say it’s going to do plenty of good.
Wesley Cox, a life-long Gadsden County resident and director of the North Florida Horsemen’s Association that represents riders at the Gretna track, told Gadsden commissioners Nov. 1 that barrel racing is generating plenty of excitement. Job creation and developing horse-related businesses, he said, would go into overdrive if voters approve slots in a county-wide referendum Jan. 31.
Last weekend, hundreds showed up for a job fair at the Gretna site.
Permits and purses
Applicants to state regulators for pari-mutuel permits and licenses must submit an agreement with associations representing a majority of horse owners racing at their track.
For Hialeah Park in Miami-Dade County, that’s the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association. Fisch and his association have a six-year agreement with the owners of Hialeah Park that guarantees a flat amount for purses. In the 2011-12 racing season, the agreement calls for Hialeah to put up purses of $3.6 million for a 10-week racing schedule. Future years call for larger purses.
The purses include provisions for breeder awards to Florida-accredited horse owners and breeders. Fisch’s FQHRA accredits the horses and a majority of the accredited stallions stand for breeding at his own AVS Equine Hospital in Leon County.
Fisch says big purses, with the associated breeders’ awards for Florida-accredited horses, is needed to attract and grow an industry.
“The states that have a flourishing industry, they have a breeding program,” Fisch said.
A unified horsemen’s association, he says, is necessary.
“If you have a bunch of splinter groups, you’ll never have a way to influence” state policy or national interest among horse owners, Fisch said. “Several small organizations will not build that up. We’re not trying to be the king of anything.”
Gretna Racing’s circumstances and business model call for a different setup. The purses, to begin, are much smaller, with the promise of bigger things to come, particularly if slots are allowed in Gadsden County.
“Growth and expansion of jobs would be highly dependent on slots,” Cox told commissioners.
The Gretna Racing deal with Cox’s North Florida Horsemen’s Association calls for purses to come from percentages of the take from race betting, card room action and simulcast wagering, in line with state law. The seven-year deal stipulates purses will come from 6 percent of the betting pools for on-site races, 4 percent from gross receipts of the card room and 50 percent of net revenue from simulcast wagering on races at other tracks.
The agreements also include purses supplemented by “such voluntary contributions to the purse pool that Gretna Racing shall make in its sole and absolute discretion.”
To start, purses will be $38,000. That reflects the fact that the pools of money from gambling will start at zero.
“They still seem to be moving in the direction in keeping with the concept” in the legislation, Lawson said of Gretna Racing. “Because there’s a lot of money involved, owners are looking to find a way to make this happen the quickest way they can.”
A flat track for quarter horse racing is planned at Gretna, but it has yet to be built.
A barrel racing track is a faster way to get started. Jay Dorris, president and CEO of Gretna Racing’s parent company, PCI Gaming, told Gadsden commissioners there’s an urgency to get slots before voters. The only way to qualify for a referendum in 2012 was to have racing in December of this year and January of next year. And getting an early 2012 referendum may be required for slots.
“The Legislature’s under pressure to shut the door” of local-option referendums on slots, Dorris said.
The quickest way to meet the full-race schedule was with barrel racing.
Other challenges besides the vote, approved for Jan. 31 by the Gadsden Commission last week, await. Fisch and his FQHRA last week challenged the racing license approved by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering for Gretna Racing. A spokesperson for the department said a decision is still pending.
An October ruling from the 1st District Court of Appeal confirmed a lower-court ruling that the Legislature had the authority to allow slot machines at Hialeah. That decision could face Florida Supreme Court review and a ruling that could negate the legislation on which the Gretna permit and slots referendum depend. A legal challenge to the Gadsden commission’s decision to hold the January referendum could also be coming.
Fisch feels betrayed. He said legislation opening up pari-mutuel permits rode on the backs of quarter horses, that it was the promise of a growing quarter-horse industry in Florida that, in part, swayed lawmakers to approve expanded gambling.
“As soon as they had what they (wanted), they didn’t need us anymore,” Fisch said.