A bill approved by a House committee Monday, and similar amendments expected to be adopted today in the Senate, would allow Hialeah to re-open its legendary horse track by first running quarter horses and then phase into thoroughbred racing.
Quarter horse tracks are also in the development stages in Hamilton, Gadsden, Flagler, Marion and Lee counties, where they are taking advantage of loopholes in the pari-mutuel law that benefit rural regions. Read story here.
Photo: Two young quarter horse foals at the AVS Equine Hospital and breeding farm north of Tallahassee. Their owners are counting on legislators to allow quarter horse racing to take off in Florida.
The issue has emerged as a classic pari-mutuel fight -- with potential competitors alleging the horsemen have questionable motives while the horse industry denies the goal is to cash in on card games and other forms of gambling but instead to enhance horse racing.
''These quarter horse permits are nothing more than a blatant attempt to open up a card room and any form of gambling that may come down the pike,'' said Dan Adkins, president of Mardi Gras Casino in Hollywood, which operates a greyhound track, card room and slot machines. ``Quarter horse racing is dead. It is not coming back. This is a bait and switch.''
Adkins points to the provision in the bill that allows for race tracks to lease another facility to run their quarter horses. ''They could lease a dog track and still qualify under the law,'' he said. ``It has nothing to do with quarter horses. It has to do with opening up card rooms.''
Marc Dunbar, lobbyist for Gulfstream Racecourse who has helped with 10 of the 12 quarter horse racing permits applied for in the last two years, explains that the provision will allow horse tracks like Hialeah, and Ocala's Breeder's Sales, operate thoroughbred racing at home and quarter horse racing at another venue.
Because quarter horses are allowed to race past 7 p.m. under Florida law, and thoroughbreds are not, "it's opens up a whole new marketplace for them,'' he said. "If there's a ruse, it's that Gulfstream is going to get to race at night.''
Dunbar admits that alternative gaming is what is reviving the industry around the country, but he denies that quarter horse racing is dead.
"The reason the industry has resurrected itself is becausea of other forms of games,'' he said, pulling out a chart that shows that when quarter horse race tracks have other games they go from operating four to five days a year to 100-200 racing days. "It guarantees the horsemen something beyond what they'd ever expected.''
Dunbar, along with greyhound lobbyist Gene McGee and former Gulfstream officials David Romanik and Paul Micucci have also formed Equestrian Land Holdings LLC, which has signed purchase agreements for property for potential racetracks in Gadsden, Citrus and and Jefferson County. Dunbar said only the Gadsden County track project is active.
Here's a rundown of the quarter horse racing permits and who's got them:
* South Marion Real Estate Holdings -- Michael Goldstein, active permit for quarter horse racing at a race track to be developed in rural Marion County.
* Hamilton Downs, Inc. -- Robert Glenn Richards, active permit for a quarter horse track by the owner of the local jai alai fronton. Construction has been delayed because of gopher tortoises.
* South Florida Racing Association -- John Brunetti, active permit for quarter horse racing at Hialeah Race course. Brunetti hopes to use the permit to allow him to run half his races with thoroughbreds and to by the only track operating night racing in South Florida.
* Marcus Strickland, business owner and developer in Flagler County, hopes to build a race track on property adjacent to the Volusia County line near I-95. Because his county does not have a pari-mutuel operationg already, he must seek a voter referendum and is working on getting that process waived.
* Gretna Racing LLC -- David Romanik and Paul Miccuci have cleared land for a track in rural Gadsden County in North Florida. They have the support of the city commission and community leaders.
* Ocala Breeders Sales -- A non-profit corporation controlled by primarily by thoroughbred breeders in Ocala hopes to build a race track and use quarter horses to allow them to phase in thoroughbred racing.
* Lee County Real Estate Holdings -- Michael Goldstein, active permit for race track in Fort Myers.
* ELH Jefferson, LLC -- David Romanik and Paul Miccuci hoped to operate a racetrack near Monticello in North Florida's Jefferson County but the move was rejected by the county commission and the permit is expected to be withdrawn.
* Sumter Real Estate Holding -- Michael Goldstein, withdrawn after Sumter County voters rejected a referendum for the track.
* Rockcrusher Racing LLC -- Tallahassee lawyer and lobbyist Marc Dunbar, working with Greyhound lobbyist Gene McGee, withdraw the permit after the Sumter County referendum was defeated.
* BOH Associates LLC, -- Naples businessman Robert Grammen withdrew a permit for quarter horse racing in Brevard County.
* Frank Stronach, owner of Gulfstream racecourse. Withdrew his application for a quarter course permit in Marion County, where he owns a training facility.
* Debary Real Estate Holdings, LLC -- Michael Goldstein holds a permit to build a track on vacant land in Volusia County but is not going forward with plans at this time.