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Judge Pulls the Reins In on Florida Barrel-Race Gambling

May 5, 2013 - 6:00pm

An administrative court judge ruled Monday that a state agency exceeded its authority two years ago when it gave gambling licenses to two North Florida barrel horse racing tracks.

The 85-page ruling by Judge John Van Landingham of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings represents a major victory for the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association (FQHRA) and the Florida Quarter Horse Breeders and Owners Association (FQHBOA) who brought the suit against Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) and for anti-casino advocates.

A state law, the Florida Pari-mutuel Wagering Act, allows gambling at facilities hosting dog racing, jai alai, and three types of horse racing, including quarter horse racing. In 2011, the DPBR granted quarter horse racing licenses to Gretna Racing and Hamilton Downs Horsetrack, despite the fact that neither track hosts traditional quarter horse racing.

In his ruling, Van Landingham declared that the DPBR's unprecedented grant of licenses to Gretna and Hamilton amounted to the adoption and implementation of a new policy without going through the proper rule-making procedures.

Traditional horse races (including both quarter and thoroughbred) are run with eight to 10 horses competing side-by-side on a flat racetrack from a single starting gate and to a single finish line. In a barrel race, however, horses maneuver around barrels, each on its own separate track, against a timer.

The so-called Gretna-style competitions are not even typical barrel races. Barrel horse tracks typically race 300 to 500 horses a day, but Gretna races only eight to 12 horses. The quarter horse associations brought the suit, fearing that giving their industry's licenses to Gretna-style barrel races would dilute the quarter horse brand, and might even drive it completely out of Florida. Because they use fewer horses and less land, the Gretna-style tracks are a cheaper alternative to their traditional quarter race counterparts.

FQHRA president Steve Fisch hailed the ruling as a victory for Florida's economy, explaining that horse racing is a multibillion-dollar industry for the state.

The horses at the race track are just the tip of the iceberg; they're what everyone sees and they're what get all the publicity, he told Sunshine State News. But the breeding industry is what creates all of the jobs. It's very labor-intensive, and requires a lot of land. Every horse on a race track creates seven jobs somewhere in the state.

Fisch told SSN the typical traditional horse track races 80 horses a day, and about 1,000 different horses in total, at a typical 40-day meet. He said this justified policymakers taking steps to defend the industry's integrity.

The suit was also supported by the National Barrel Horse Association (NBHA).

We're a family-oriented association: our children participate, and we have people running in our association who are in their 70s, Linda Jones, NBHA's Florida director, told SSN. [Pari-mutuel betting] is just not something we are into. We were, and are, in support of theFlorida Quarter Horse Racing Association."

The DBPR has not indicated whether it will appeal Van Landingham's ruling. A leading state anti-gambling activist urged it not to.

The Gretna permit was a sham from the beginning nothing more than a gambling anchor to which the owners hoped to also moor poker rooms and slot machines, No Casinos president John Sowinski said in a statement. The Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering should accept the judges decision and cancel pari-mutuel barrel-racing permits and licenses immediately.

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (954) 235-9116.

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