Gambling regulators have backed down on a number of proposed changes to the state’s pari-mutuel rules after a legislative oversight panel and industry representatives challenged the Department of Business and Professional Regulations’ authority to issue the mandates.
The agency’s Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering on Tuesday published the latest modifications, which deal with issues such as jockey requirements, track sizes and jai-alai frontons. The division folded on a number of issues raised by industry operators at a hearing last week.
But the proposal might not go far enough to prevent legal challenges.
The proposed rule changes were originally published last month, but the revised version includes a number of concessions to the controversial barrel-racing industry. Gambling regulators in 2011 granted a pari-mutuel license to Gretna Racing in Gadsden County for the rodeo-style matches, which, in turn, allowed the facility open a more lucrative card room. An appeals court later ruled that the state erred in granting the barrel-racing license — the first of its kind in the nation. The state and Gretna Racing entered a settlement agreement authorizing “flag drop” races in which two riders compete against each other but without any obstacles in the arena.
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Tuesday’s changes do away with a requirement in the original proposed rule that would have forced all tracks to have starting gates, an expensive addition that Donna Blanton, a lawyer for the association representing the barrel racers, at last week’s meeting said was too cumbersome.
The proposed rule would still ban obstacles, including barrels, on race courses.
Regulators also scrapped a proposed regulation that would have limited jockeys to 135 pounds, which also would have had an adverse impact on the rhinestone-studded barrel racers. Instead, Tuesday’s revised plan would require that jockey weights take into account “the humane treatment of the racing animal” and be published in the racing program.
The revision also eliminates a proposed requirement for “secured wagering” areas, which also could have affected the Gretna facility, where workers take bets from the window of a trailer located near the arena’s bleachers.
The latest version of the proposed rule also would make changes to the required lengths of horse tracks and lower the minimum number of entrants in a race from six to five, still more than the two riders that historically participated in the Gretna races.
And the new proposal also drops a potential requirement that tracks have “break-away rails,” something nearly all operators complained would be too costly and possibly dangerous for horses and jockeys.
Regulators also appear to have taken into consideration some of the objections regarding the publishing of horses’ qualifications.
The original proposal would have required that at least three published past performances were available to the public prior to a race.
That wouldn’t give bettors enough information, Tom Ventura, president of the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company, said last week. Tracks or owners can “pick and choose” the data they want published, he said.
Tuesday’s amended proposal would require the track’s racing secretary to make available to the public a horse’s three most-recent published outings, whether in races or workouts, and include at least one from within the past 45 days.
The changes also addressed issues related to jai-alai, also raised at the meeting and in a letter from the Legislature’s Joint Administrative Procedures Committee, which oversees state agency rulemaking.
Tuesday’s modification did away with a proposed requirement that jai-alai games be held indoors but instead would mandate that the frontons be covered.
The latest plan adds a requirement that jai-alai frontons have stands where viewers can watch the matches, something requested at last week’s meeting by a lobbyist for the association that represents jai-alai players.
“The proposed changes are a result of the division’s thoughtful consideration of very complicated issues,” John Lockwood, a lawyer who represents numerous pari-mutuel operators, including Magic City Casino, which has a summer jai-alai permit but has not yet constructed a fronton.
Lockwood said his firm’s clients are “overall pleased with the final result.”
Court: Hialeah Park eligible for jai alai permit
Pointing to a "strained reading" of state law, an appeals court Wednesday overturned a decision by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation that denied a jai alai permit for the operators of Miami-Dade County's Hialeah Park.
The ruling by the 3rd District Court of Appeal stemmed from an application by South Florida Racing Association — which operates Hialeah Park — for what is known as a "summer" jai alai permit. That application was based on a state law that addresses summer jai alai permits for gambling establishments that can show they have collected the smallest amounts of pari-mutuel wagers two consecutive years in certain counties.
Effectively, South Florida Racing Association sought to use the law to keep its current pari-mutuel permit and seek approval for a jai alai permit, Wednesday's ruling said. But the dispute focused on whether South Florida Racing Association or another pari-mutuel operator, West Flagler Associates — parent company of Magic City Casino — had the smallest total amount of wagers, or "pool," during the 2012-13 fiscal year.
The department turned down the South Florida Racing Association jai alai application because it said West Flagler had a smaller total. But the appeals court rejected that decision because it said the department only looked at wagers placed at the Miami-Dade tracks and did not take into consideration bets placed remotely, known as intertrack wagering. When both numbers were included, South Florida Racing Association collected $1.46 million in wagers, while West Flagler collected $1.94 million during the 2012-13 fiscal year, the ruling said.
"It takes a very strained reading to contort the statutory language into the department's adopted interpretation," said the 15-page ruling, written by Judge Leslie Rothenberg and joined by judges Richard Suarez and Kevin Emas.
NEWS SERVICE OF SOUTH FLORIDA