Florida Parimutuel Proposals Draw Complaints

For the third time in three years, a Florida regulatory panel held a hearing on controversial new parimutuel proposals. The bulk of the new rules focus on rodeo-style barrel facing and flag drop races offered at Gretna Racing. Horse owners and breeders strongly oppose the events as parimutuel activities.

At a recent hearing of a Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s Pari-mutuel Wagering panel, for the third time in three years regulators reviewed the latest version of controversial new parimutuel proposals. The regulations include how much jockeys can weigh, track sizes and jai alai frontons.

One major regulatory target is rodeo-style barrel racing and “flag drop” horseraces. State gambling regulators four years ago granted Gretna Racing in Gadsden County a parimutuel permit for quarterhorse barrel racing, which a court ultimately ruled was issued in error. State regulators later said the facility could offer flag drop races, in which two horses race against each other in a straight line. Also, recently a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeals ruled that gambling regulators erred in denying Gretna Racing a slots license. The state has asked the full court to rehear the case.

Speaking at the hearing was Attorney Donna Blanton, representing the North Florida Horsemen’s Association whose members include about 200 women who ride Gretna Racing’s horses. Blanton said many of the proposed regulations were “invalid exercises” of the agency’s authority. She said the proposed rules barring bar jockeys from weighing more than 135 pounds and requiring them to wear “unique racing colors and white pants registered with the racing secretary” plus helmets, vests and boots would put the women riders out of work. “They’ll be gone. They won’t be here. And that’s contrary to the fact that there’s nothing in statute that prohibits this kind of horseracing. It’s perfectly legitimate. It’s allowed. It’s something you have licensed in the past,” Blanton said.

Horse owners and breeders not affiliated with the NFHA strongly oppose barrel racing and flag drop races as parimutuel activities, partly because most other races require more horses to compete. Also, under the proposed rules, quarterhorse races would be required to be held on tracks at least 1,300 feet long, which is much longer than the Gretna track.

“No matter what you do you’re going to come up with a contested decision,” CEO Lonny Powell, chief executive officer of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association said for the most part his membership agreed the new proposals “seem to reinforce reality” that barrel racing and flag drops are not legitimate. “We want to make sure that expanded gambling doesn’t happen through loopholes. Otherwise, we just want integrity in the business. We don’t need made-up sports. What do we get to next? Hermit crab sprints? We can bet odd-even that the sun will be covered by clouds one day and that’s parimutuel? It’s just a real slippery slope. But we’re encouraged by some of the comments we heard from the department today,” Powell said.

But the legislative Joint Administrative Procedures Committee that oversees rules said regulators may have gone too far with some of the proposals. They questioned if costs associated with the changes would exceed a $200,000 a year, which would require legislative approval. Industry operators said implementing all the changes would cost $500,000 to more than $1 million annually.

The new rules also would impose minimum standards for jai alai, raising objections and alarms throughout the industry. For examples, rules requiring players to qualify to participate in games parimutuels to have at least eight different players or teams caused. David Cantina, general manager at Orlando Jai Alai Fronton and Race Book, the only jai alai fronton in the state without a card room or slots, to comment, “It will almost definitely put us out of business.” He said his operation primarily depends on revenues from simulcast games and is in a “cash flow negative.”

Dave Roberts, a lobbyist for Magic City Casino in Miami, which has a summer jai alai permit but has not yet begun jai alai performances, objected to the proposal that would require games to be played indoors and frontons to be constructed of granite. He noted jai alai traditionally was played outside in France and Spain.

Doug Russell of the International Jai Alai Players Association, claimed that rules for jai alai frontons did not include minimum standards for seating. He noted jai alai players’ salaries have declined from $5,000 to $2,000 a month because parimutuels focus more on lucrative card rooms or slots. “Most of my guys are skilled laborers on the side. We’re the only humans in the game,” Russell said.