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Nancy Smith

Gretna, Gravitas and the Florida Supreme Court

April 4, 2016 - 6:30am
Card room and simulcast pari-mutuel wagering, Gretna
Card room and simulcast pari-mutuel wagering, Gretna

Sometime in June the Florida Supreme Court will rule on a lie.

Admittedly, I'm no lawyer. But I can't understand why the high court chose to hear arguments in the case involving Gretna Racing, a tiny Gadsden County horse track with a card room that frankly shouldn't have been eligible for a slot license in the first place.

Maybe the supremes were moved by Gretna's plight -- it's the fifth poorest city in Florida, with 27.75 percent of its families living below the poverty level. Or maybe it's because the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled against Gretna, but asked the Supreme Court to decide whether pari-mutuels can have slot machines if local voters approve, or if the games require the express say-so of the Legislature.

I Beg to DifferThe point is, what Gretna really wants is a slot license so it can open a casino.

According to Florida law, a pari-mutuel facility must have a legitimate racing license before it can be granted a slot license. Gretna does not. True, Gretna holds a Quarter Horse license, but at present it's worthless, or should be. The court ruled the activity going on there is not Quarter Horse racing. In fact, the ruling said the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering "overstepped its authority in issuing the license" ... it was essentially a new gambling product approved without enabling legislation, regulatory hearings or public input.

And the ruling was upheld on appeal.

There are actually three conditions for a slot license: A facility first must 1) be domiciled in Miami-Dade or Broward counties; 2) hold a license (which is awarded under the heading of the permit) to conduct live pari-mutuel events such as horse racing; and 3) must have conducted those live events for two years. 

This North Florida pari-mutuel has suckered the Florida Legislature and the judiciary into an intricately planned hoax, the details of which have been lost on most of Florida's so-called gaming experts. I hope in subsequent commentary to talk more about the hoax.

Legislators still claim the Gretna case hinges on a semantic analysis of a 2009 law establishing eligibility for slot machines at pari-mutuels. The law passed in 2009, and went into effect in 2010. It was an expansion of a 2004 voter-approved constitutional amendment that authorized slot machines at seven existing horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

But, wait a minute. That expansion didn't change the most important factor under consideration here: the existence of a legal racing license in order to apply for a slot license.

According to the 2009 change, a Hialeah track that wasn't in business at the time the amendment was approved was allowed to operate with slots.

The law the supremes will look at consists of three clauses, including one that deals with counties like Gadsden outside of Broward and Miami-Dade. State regulators denied the Gretna track a slot license, arguing the Department of Business and Professional Regulation was "not authorized to issue a slot machine license to a pari-mutuel facility in a county which … holds a countywide referendum to approve such machines, absent a statutory or constitutional provision enacted after July 1, 2010, authorizing such a referendum."

Actually, referendum or no referendum, regulators would be correct in denying Gretna a slot license because of the court rulings on its racing license.

It was revealed in 2012 that the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering knew as early as 2011 there was something unclean about Gretna's request for "pari-mutuel barrel racing" to be licensed as the functional equivalent of Quarter Horse racing.

Gadsden commissioners, sold a bill of goods that slots would somehow create jobs, eagerly approved a referendum before Gretna Racing had even held its first pari-mutuel barrel race, and likely not knowing they were voting on something that was technically illegal through and through -- the barrel races themselves and the slot license outside of Miami-Dade or Broward.  The city manager was now even part of the Gretna Racing infrastructure.  Days later, Hamilton County took a similar vote -- also based on "pari-mutuel barrel racing" held at nearby Hamilton Jai Alai and Poker.

Gretna immediately applied for its slot license.

In rapid succession, counties across Florida began to exercise their options, afraid of getting shut out should the ability to have slot machines actually come into play.  Little did they know that two of the part owners of the Poarch Creek Indians' facility, attorneys David Romanik and Marc Dunbar, were traversing the state, telling permit holders they needed to "activate" their permits using the fake racing scheme, so as not to get shut out if legislation was filed that would shut down "dormant" permit holders in favor of destination casinos.

Even as Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi attempted to halt the madness with a Jan. 13, 2012 non-binding opinion that said counties could not allow slot machines without legislative authorization, Gadsden County thumbed its nose at her and held the Jan. 31, 2012 slot vote anyway.

But, here is a timeline of events to catch you up on what has eluded so many legislators watching the Gretna case:

Jan. 17, 2008:  Under intense pressure from evangelical Christians, the Jefferson County Commission votes 4-1 not to allow Romanik and Dunbar to open a pari-mutuel facility there.

Jan. 8, 2011:  Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association writes to the Poarch Creek Indian Tribe telling them that "J-Tracks" -- a twisting type of horse track -- are unsafe for the animals and that the American Quarter Horse Association (AQUA) will not sanction one if built at Gretna. Read here.

March 3, 2011:  Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association writes to Quarter Horse permit holders at the behest of the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering (DPMW) to tell them that "J-Tracks" are unsafe and thus not allowed by AQHA (after Gretna Racing indicated it was going to build one anyway). Read here.

Sept. 30, 2011:  Gretna files an amended dates application (outside the statutory dates application time window), because its original Sept. 6 application contained only two live racing dates. The DPMW returned the application and it was refiled with more dates. Read here.

Oct. 19, 2011:  DPMW awards racing license to Gretna Racing LLC to conduct pari-mutuel barrel racing in lieu of AQHA Quarter Horse Racing. Read here.

Oct. 26, 2011:  Florida auditor general cites DPMW for faulty slot machine and card room licensing procedures. Read here and here.

Oct. 26, 2011:  State Rep. Erik Fresen files three highly anticipated destination gaming bills (HB 491). Read here.

Nov. 1, 2011:  Gadsden County Commission approves Gretna Racing's request to authorize a countywide referendum on allowing slot machines at Creek Entertainment Gretna. Read here. 

Nov. 3, 2011:  Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association (FQHRA) requests a formal administrative hearing challenging the issuance of Gretna's racing license by the DPMW. Read here.

Nov. 4, 2011:  Hamilton Jai Alai applies for pari-mutuel barrel racing license.

Nov. 7, 2011:  Romanik files for a jai alai permit in Weston, Fla. (Broward County)

Nov. 16, 2011:  Hamilton receives a pari-mutuel barrel racing license.

Nov. 29, 2011:   Leon County circuit judge refuses to stay litigation currently pending at the Division of Administrative Hearings that challenges the DPMW's unprecedented approval of “pari-mutuel barrel racing” as a brand new form of gambling in Florida.

Nov. 29, 2011:  Veteran pari-mutuel regulator said to have issued Gretna's license abruptly resigns to become the Gretna Racing "head of security." Read here.  

Dec. 1, 2011:  Gretna Racing runs first pari-mutuel barrel race with eight horses and an attendance of 50. Read here.

Dec. 19, 2011:  Gulfstream Park receives a license to conduct Quarter Horse racing with a two-race meet under its GPTARP permit spanning Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 --  (technically two years, but actually two days).

Dec. 20, 2011:  Gretna cardroom opens. Read here. 

Dec. 25, 2011:  National Public Radio story on sparse Gretna attendance and handle (as low as $24 a day, while FQHRA racing at Hialeah is going on simultaneously, averaging more than $200,000 a day). Read here.

Dec. 31, 2011:   Gulfstream runs a Quarter Horse race under its Gulfstream Park Thoroughbred Aftercare Retirement Program (GPTARP) permit using Thoroughbred horses. Tells horsemen it didn't run a Quarter Horse race.  But it emails the DPMW that, in fact, it did. Read here. 

Jan. 12, 2012:  Florida attorney general issues a non-binding opinion on whether counties that have held successful slot referendums can allow slots to be installed at pari-mutuel facilities outside of Miami-Dade and Broward.

Jan. 31, 2012:  Gadsden County voters approve slots.

April 8, 2012: Gulfstream conducts a flag drop race under GPTARP permit.

(Litigation ensues)

May 6, 2013: DOAH Judge John V. Lanhingham rules that the DPMW overstepped its authority in issuing the pari-mutuel barrel racing license to Gretna. Read here.

June 6, 2013: DPMW awards flag drop license. Read here.

Feb. 7, 2014: Court affirms ruling that barrel racing is not a legitimate pari-mutuel sport in Florida. Read here.  The First District Court of Appeal agreed with a lower court and ruled that the decision by Florida regulators to license barrel racing as a pari-mutuel sport was a misuse of the rulemaking powers of the state. Download 13-2660  CASE NO. 1D13-2660. Read here.

Hopefully, before they decide -- even before June 7 when they hear arguments -- justices first will take a step back and examine the linear progression of how Gretna came to apply for its slot license. It's been a well-manipulated and unsavory process. Surely the fate of gambling expansion in Florida shouldn't depend  on a facility that isn't conducting real Quarter Horse races.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith


"WHY?", you ask??? Simple,.. because the "FIX" is in ! (The 'question' now is "Who got the money ?!?")....

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nancy smith


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