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Politics

Battle Over 'Flag Drop' Horse Races Could Affect Slots

April 25, 2016 - 9:00pm

Gambling regulators and a tiny horse track in Hamilton County are at odds over whether a series of "flag drop" races two summers ago, which one former state official described as "a sham," constituted legitimate horse races.

Now it's up to an administrative law judge to decide whether Hamilton Downs Horsetrack should be punished for the races, in which some horses stopped midway down a dirt track, others threw their riders off and even more refused to start running when a red rag was waved.

The ruling from Administrative Law Judge E. Gary Early, who starting hearing testimony Monday in what is expected to be a two-day hearing, could play a role in whether the track is eligible in the future to add lucrative slot machines.

Hamilton County is one of several counties --- along with Brevard, Gadsden, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington --- where voters have approved slots at local pari-mutuels. The Florida Supreme Court is now poised to decide, in a case filed by Gretna Racing in Gadsden County, whether slot machines require the express permission of the Legislature, even if local voters give slots the go-ahead.

The Hamilton Downs case heard by Early on Monday involves a decision last year by the state Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering, which notified Hamilton Downs that, because some of the 2014 races lacked "speed," the pari-mutuel operator did not run the number of races required by law.

"Events that were called races at the time were held, however it's the division's position that the races were not races of speed, and therefore do not count as races," Caitlin Mawn, assistant general counsel for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, argued Monday. The department includes the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.

But Glenn Richards, owner of Hamilton Downs, and his lawyer, and even the pari-mutuel regulators questioned Monday, said there aren't any rules or laws governing "flag drop" races --- or how fast horses should run.

Pari-mutuel operators also have no control over animals' behavior, Richards' lawyer, Seann Frazier, said.

"The novel theory … is that the horses didn't run fast enough," Frazier argued.

Horses and greyhounds in other types of races frequently don't come out of the gate or "break" when the race starts, Frazier said.

"Never is the course then to prosecute the permit holder for the performance of an animal," Frazier said. "This is about slots. … The reason for this complaint … came from a competitors' doing. It seems like the department is prosecuting the competitor's interests."

Hamilton Downs started the "flag drop" races --- in which two riders compete against each other on a straight track for a short distance after a cloth is waved --- months after state regulators in 2014 reversed a previous decision that had allowed the track to get a pari-mutuel license for barrel racing.

But, Richards said, three weeks before the track's June 2014 races, the Hamilton Downs Horsemen's Association, which represents riders and trainers, told the track that it wouldn't be able to provide the group's premiere riders and horses.

"The horses were way down on the list," Richards said.

Richards blamed the poor performance of the horses in June 2014 on the North Florida Horsemen's Association, which represents the riders and trainers that race at Gretna. The association threatened riders who participated at Hamilton with not being able to run at Gretna if they did, Richards said.

But Wesley Cox, chairman of the North Florida Horsemen's Association, told The News Service of Florida that never happened.

"We never said that. I don't know how anybody can prevent anybody from doing anything at another facility," Cox said in a telephone interview Monday.

The horses that raced at Hamilton Downs were accustomed to barrel racing, which involves running in a "figure eight" around obstacles, and not on a straight track, as required under a separate understanding between state regulators and Gretna Racing, a track west of Tallahassee that paved the way for barrel racing and the "flag drops."

Richards said that the horses were "schooled" over three days prior to the races.

But Louis Haskel, who at the time served as a state regulator known as a "steward," was incredulous at what he witnessed when he oversaw the Hamilton Downs races.

"This meet took place in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere. … It was unlike anything I've ever seen before," Haskel, testifying by telephone on Monday, said. "I called my boss from Hamilton Downs while I was there and told him straight out, this is a sham."

In about one-third of the races, "the horse didn't run or just walked or the rider fell off," Haskel testified.

The flag drop "in no way, shape or form resembles a horse race," Haskel said.

"Nothing about Hamilton Downs is real in terms of race track standards," he said.

But, Haskel said he could find nothing in the Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering rule book that showed that the track operators had violated any existing regulations.

Haskel said he referred to the rule book several times, "but the rules just didn't exist."

Richards said that, because the horses weren't used to the shape of the track and because the 100-degree heat had affected some of the animals, he repeatedly asked state regulators who were in attendance if the races needed to be rerun. None of them objected to the races at the time, he said Monday.

"I asked about the concern the horses weren't breaking," Richards said. "There are no rules. We did the best we could. That's all I could tell you."

In addition to the issue about speed, state regulators are also objecting to a race involving two horses owned by the same owner, known as a "coupled" entry.

Those races are permitted in other types of horse races, which generally involve up to eight horses instead of the two running in the flag drops.

None of the state regulators, including Haskel and an investigator, who were at the track and saw the program listing two horses with the same owner, objected at the time.

After the race, Haskel made the race "official," which meant that it counted towards Hamilton Downs' required number of performances for the year, Richards said and state records show.

Frazier argued that the responsibility for monitoring the coupled entries fell on the race secretary and not the pari-mutuel operator.

Richards accused the Gretna track of trying to sabotage Hamilton Downs, which could be competition if both North Florida tracks are allowed to get slots.

"It's all political," Richards said.

But Cox --- who was present for some of the June 2014 races and complained about the coupled entry --- said that, while Gretna has been accused of "pushing the envelope" for the horse racing industry, Hamilton Downs has gone over the edge.

"They haven't built anything. They haven't built any kind of track or facilities," Cox said, "They just made a mockery of the industry."

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