Group claims Florida ‘rubber-stamped phony horse racing’

A masked thief fanning $100 bills is the backdrop for an ad blasting “phony horse racing.”

You’re probably thinking, “Phony horse racing? Huh?” It’s okay — we thought it, too.

A coalition of horse breeders and owners used the phrase for races they deem improper at a rural racino west of Tallahassee. Expansion of parimutuel rodeo-style racing has dramatic consequences for the quarter horse industry and parimutuels, opponents say.

“Florida outlawed Internet cafes, but rubber-stamped phony horse racing,” begins the United Florida Horsemen ad. “Gov. Scott, can you tell us why?”

Is the ad’s message hyperbole or on point?

The backstory is years-long and complicated. But the conflict really comes down to a simple question: What counts as a parimutuel horse race in Florida?

The answer is crucial in determining whether a facility can offer on-site gambling, such as card rooms and slot machines, that brings in big bucks. The parimutuel industry has been in decline for decades.

In 2011, the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering approved a license for Gretna Racing to run parimutuel barrel match races at its Gadsden County facility, even though the department had never before licensed that kind of parimutuel activity.

These were not traditional races, in which quarter horses sprint around an oval track head-to-head. In a barrel race, contestants sprint one at a time around three barrels in a clover-leaf pattern. The clock determines who wins.

The horsemen found it disturbing Gretna could offer these low-cost races, deeming them a cheap way to get more lucrative poker rooms and slot machines. So the groups sued the division.

“You’re knocking out one of Florida’s biggest industries by letting these people run a barrel race meet,” said Kent Stirling, executive director of Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

In a May 6 order, an administrative law judge slammed the state division for approving licenses for Gretna with knowledge the track planned to offer barrel match races. Even though parimutuel barrel match racing is not explicitly banned in state law, it was not okay for the division to essentially make up its own definition of a horse race, judge John G. Van Laningham wrote. It should have been established in an open process via division rulemaking or by the Legislature, he wrote.

Gretna attorney and co-owner Marc Dunbar asked the division to allow the facility to instead run “flag drop” match races, in which at least two horses sprint side by side for at least 100 yards, as it awaits an appeal of the judicial order. A similar event was held in 2012 at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach.

The division allowed it in June, setting off more incredulous reactions by the horse associations. By their reading, the judge wrote a quarter horse race must meet criteria of the American Quarter Horse Association.

Flag-drop racing is “fun for backyard fun and just goofing around” said Trey Buck, AQHA executive director of racing. “But when you’re talking about real horse racing, it needs to be done the correct way.”

Dunbar has a very different reading of the order, saying the judge found barrel racing problematic on a technicality. Flag-drop racing is not new to Florida gaming, he added.

A Department of Business and Professional Regulation spokeswoman told us it is the division’s job to issue operating licenses, not to find out how a facility’s races will start. One way to do that is via flag drop, she said.

Flag-drop racing generated complaints about false starts, but the invention of the starting gate quelled that issue, said Bob Jarvis, Nova Southeastern University gambling law professor.

It’s important, he said, because the judge said the state’s definition of parimutuel horse racing should be understood as voters who adopted the modern state Constitution in 1968 understood it, which includes the gates.

“I don’t think there’s any question that flag-dropping is not the kind of racing that the voters intended to approve when they made revisions of the Constitution,” Jarvis said. “And I don’t think it’s the kind of racing that voters in 2013 have in mind when they are talking about parimutuel racing.”

Our ruling

The horsemen deployed flashy rhetoric in trying to get Scott’s attention. “Phony horse racing” can mean different things to different crowds. We think an otherwise pretty accurate point about the division allowing a race track to offer questionable parimutuel flag-drop racing is obscured by the hyperbole.

We rate this claim Half True.