Florida’s thoroughbred industry is going all out in a high-stakes race against Oxford Downs, the quarter-horse track near The Villages in southern Marion County.
Looking to develop a new horse racing facility in Marion, Ocala-based Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association (FTBOA) joined forces with a questionable trade organization in the yearlong effort to stamp out one of the region’s up-and-coming entertainment venues.
The FTBOA, representing Thoroughbred breeders and owners statewide, is not facing easy odds. The group has met with stiff resistance from local politicians, who bristle at the idea of a new track to compete with Oxford Downs’ premier location and county fair atmosphere.
Among other improvements, South Marion Real Estate Holdings, pari-mutuel permit holder for Oxford Downs, is starting construction of a card room based on current law. In Florida, pari-mutuel entities are eligible to have a year-round poker room after conducting pari-mutuel wagering. Within a year, they have an option to import simulcasts for Thoroughbred races.
The Florida Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering, the agency responsible for issuing the required licenses, regularly oversees racing activities at Oxford Downs, to ensure compliance with state law.
This year, the FTBOA is turning its sights toward Tallahassee, pushing legislators to revise state law. They are behind a proposed amendment that, if passed, would dramatically alter the rules governing tracks like Oxford Downs, ultimately forcing them to sell out at far below-market value.
In its relentless campaign against Oxford Downs, the FTBOA has formed an alliance with the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association (FQHRA), a racing coalition with questionable legitimacy within the state’s horseracing industry. Steven Fisch, a Tallahassee veterinary surgeon, serves as FQHRA President.
Making FQHRA’s involvement troublesome is that the group only operates out of a single facility in Florida — Hialeah Park in Miami-Dade County. Hialeah Park recently sued the FQHRA for allegedly misappropriating funds, in a dispute over several hundred thousand dollars owed to horsemen. The suit was settled in early 2015.
One legislative change sought by the FTBOA would require Oxford Downs to contract with the FQHRA before providing quarter horse racing. They are lobbying legislators to pass legislation to set up several stringent rules; one would establish minimum track sizes greater than Oxford Downs’ existing track. Another increases purse payments to more than 1,000 percent of current statutory requirements.
If successful, added regulatory burdens would successfully squeeze out smaller tracks such as Oxford Downs.
Tony Mendola, Oxford Downs’ president and principal owner, says the involvement of the FQHRA is just another ploy to prevent the facility from providing economic benefits to Marion County.
“In the three years we have operated,” he says, “we have never been approached or contacted by Dr. Fisch or the FQHRA … observing the mire of problems and lawsuits that seem to follow him, we chose to work with local horsemen who are accessible, share our same values and are free of conflicting agendas.
“It has been a pleasure to work with the Central Florida Horsemen’s Association,” Mendola adds, “and watch them give back to the community.”
This is far from the first clash between Oxford Downs and the FTBOA, which is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession of 2008. Not only has the group faced the loss of several racing dates, but also tracks that have closed or are in danger of closing nationwide. This loss of racing dates led to increased competition, with the FTBOA trying to squeeze out some tracks, including Oxford Downs.
Other questions raised concerns about financial practices at the FTBOA, particularly that its membership did not get an opportunity to approve a 10 percent cut the association takes out of Florida-bred stakes, breeders’ and stallion awards, as well as other incentive money. Members also say they never had a chance to opt-out of such programs.
“When the economy went to the bottom, it hit a lot of states hard,” FTBOA CEO Lonny Powell told Carlos Medina of the Ocala Star-Banner. “It’s still a fragile thing. The national foal crop has just stabilized.”
In April 2014, the Breeders’ group bristled during Oxford Downs’ state-mandated quarter horse racing, an event that helped the facility meet regulatory requirements.
“One person was asked to leave the property after a heated exchange with track personnel,” the Star-Banner reported at the time.
Afterward, FTBOA filed an injunction, claiming the unsanctioned races had “inadequate facilities,” arguing that Oxford Downs failed to meet any of the site plans initially submitted. A court ruling is still pending.
Oxford Downs has owned its quarter horse permit to operate in Marion County since 2012, starting with a live pari-mutuel event at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales facility in Ocala. Construction of Oxford Downs began in 2013, and the track conducted its premier on-site race in April 2014.
The facility also held a 10-day race meet in July 2014, which further supported its regulatory requirements. The competition included approximately 160 live horse races, all without a single injury to either horses or jockeys. Another 10-day race event is set for May/June 2016.
In the debate over the future of gambling in Florida, Mendola and his other Oxford Downs partners have remained the only pari-mutuel facility not asking the Legislature for expanded gaming opportunities. The track’s principals say they only seek equal and fair treatment, subject to the same regulatory requirements as similar accommodations.