Barrel racing issue before appeals court

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Combatants in a battle over a new north Florida barrel racing venture brought their respective cases to the 1st District Court of Appeal on Monday with track owners saying they’ve gotten the state’s blessing and their opponent crying foul, reports Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida.

At issue is whether the appellate court should issue a stay that would at least temporarily halt gambling at a new facility in Gretna while the issue of whether it is legal winds through the courts. The Gretna track, which received its permit in September, began holding barrel races on Dec 1.

Owners of the Gretna horse track say they should be allowed to continue offering pari-mutuel wagering on barrel racing and operate a card room while the case moves forward. Members of the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association, on the other hand, urged the court to order a halt to the track’s activities until a decision is made on whether or not the gambling is legal.

At issue is whether barrel racing is a bona fide pari-mutuel activity. The issue is critical because Florida law allows card rooms only at pari-mutuel facilities.

Critics say barrel racing, which traditionally does not involve pari-mutuel wagering, is merely a ruse to allow track owners to conduct the more lucrative card room activities.

Gretna, other track owners and the North Florida Horsemen’s Association say Florida law is largely mute on what constitutes a horse race, an open interpretation that allows for a number of horse racing venues, including barrel racing.

“Since 1931, Florida has condoned pari-mutuel wagering on racing between two or more horses,” the track owners say in their court brief. “During this time period, no laws or regulations have been put forth by the Legislature, the state Racing Commission, or the Division of Pari-mutuel Watering regulating the distance of a horse race or the course on which the race may occur.”

During arguments at the appeals court on Monday, Judge William Van Nortwick pressed opponents of the facility to say what harm will be done if racing is allowed to continue until the underlying case is resolved.

“Even if we deny the stay, it seems to me if you ultimately prevail you will be able to stop the barrel racing and stop the gambling,” Van Nortwick said.

Citing a pending application from another track in Hamilton County, Stephen Menton, an attorney representing the quarter horse racing association, said once the racing genie is out of the bottle it will be next to impossible to put in it back in.

“Because of the precedent that has been set (with Gretna) there are going to be permit holders, such as Hamilton Downs, who are going to come in and seek approval to begin pari-mutuel wagering in multiple other locations,” said Menton.

Marc Dunbar, attorney representing the race track, said investors have already pumped $20 million into the Gretna track and employed 170 workers. Granting a stay would mean a loss of income for many area families and investors of the facility.

“I question what the irreparable harm will be,” Dunbar said. “There is no possible way they can say they are harmed by stopping the races.”

Gretna is in Gadsden County, just west of Tallahassee.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.