Judge to decide if barrel racing a good bet

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A judge began hearing arguments Monday in a gambling-industry battle about whether a North Florida pari-mutuel facility should be allowed to offer betting on rodeo-style barrel racing, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

Two quarter-horse groups argue that the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation improperly approved a license last year for the facility in the small Gadsden County community of Gretna.

Those groups say state law only allows gambling facilities to offer what might be considered more-traditional forms of horse racing — such as thoroughbred racing, harness racing and quarter-horse sprints.

Also, they contend that offering barrel races is simply a way for owners of the Gretna facility to be able to also operate a poker room and possibly add slot machines in the future.

“Essentially, this case is about how gambling policy is set in Florida,” said attorney J. Stephen Menton, who is representing the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association, the Florida Quarter Horse Breeders and Owners Association and two individual plaintiffs, in the case before Administrative Law Judge Cathy Sellers.

But the department and another quarter-horse industry group allied with the Gretna pari-mutuel facility contend that state law does not define how quarter-horse races will be run. As a result, they say the department acted properly in issuing a license.

Marc Dunbar, an attorney who represents the Florida Quarter Horse Track Association and Gretna Racing, said barrel racing, like other types, is “first one across the finish line wins.”

“Gretna Racing is conducting horse races consistent with the dictionary definition,” Dunbar told Sellers.

Unlike thoroughbred or harness racing in which horses run around tracks, quarter-horse races typically involve straight sprints at shorter distances. Hialeah Park in South Florida has run those types of sprint races during the past few years.

Dunbar asked the judge to ignore what he described as a “salacious” argument about barrel racing being part of a strategy to allow expanded gambling. Gadsden County voters in January approved a referendum that would allow slot machines at the facility, but Attorney General Pam Bondi said such referenda are not valid unless authorized by the Legislature or the state constitution.

Sellers scheduled three days of arguments and testimony in the case, which was filed in the state Division of Administrative Hearings because it involves how the department carried out state law.

The first witness Monday, Ponta Gorda breeder and owner Gerald Keesling, has run horses at Hialeah and tracks in several other states. He said he is not aware of any pari-mutuel facilities in the country that run barrel races.

Keesling said he thought running quarter-horse races in North Florida would be an “opportunity” until Gretna started barrel races. If Hialeah made the same decision, he said his horses would not have a place to race in Florida.

“That’s all we have,” said Keesling, who is one of the plaintiffs in the case. “We have nothing in Florida if Hialeah would take the action to not race our quarter-horse meet there.”

But David Romanik, another attorney for the group supporting barrel racing, tried to poke holes in Keesling’s testimony. For example, Romanik asked about “match races” that pit two horses against each other, an attempt to show that not all quarter-horse races follow the same format.

Earlier, department attorney Joe Helton said pari-mutuel regulators carried out state law when approving the Gretna license. He said barrel racing had never come up in the past.

“The question (is), is it prohibited by the statute?” Helton said.

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.