Updated on 10/12/2012 3:11PM

Florida racetracks' new fad? Quarter Horse meets

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Two Quarter Horses lined up near the top of the stretch for the 11th and last race April 8 at Gulfstream Park. A racetrack employee held a flag in his upraised hand, brought the flag down, and the horses were off. When the horses crossed the finish line 220 yards later, Gulfstream Park through a company associated with the track had officially held a Quarter Horse meet under Florida law.

Gulfstream’s effort to secure a Quarter Horse license – which was awarded to Gulfstream Park Thoroughbred After Racing Program – is part of a gold rush by companies seeking to obtain Florida racing licenses to exploit the gambling opportunities afforded to parimiutuel facilities. Under state law, parimutuel facilities in most counties can operate poker rooms. The belief that the Florida legislature will soon expand gambling opportunities has led six companies to file for Quarter Horse licenses in the last two years, including several filings for parimutuel barrel racing. There are 12 companies holding permits for Quarter Horse racing in Florida, according to the Dept. of Business & Professional Regulation, which requries permit holders to file each year for licenses to race.

The flurry of applications has unnerved the state’s Thoroughbred horsemen and breeders, who contend the jockeying is an effort to cut horsemen out of shares of revenue from casino-type games.

Under Florida law, there are two requirements for sharing revenue from card rooms with horsemen. Any Thoroughbred or harness track that operates a card room must evenly share card room net income with horsemen and breeders. But Quarter Horse permit holders have no such requirement. All that is required is a purse agreement with the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association or “the association representing a majority of the horse owners and trainers” at the track.

Dr. Steve Fisch, president of the Florida QHRA, said Tuesday that none of the Quarter Horse racing permit holders has ever contacted him to discuss a purse agreement. Instead, some permit holders, including Gretna Racing in north Florida, have reached agreements with local organizations representing barrel racers. Barrel racing does not fit the Florida QHRA’s definition of racing, disqualifying the Florida QHRA from representing the interests of the runners at those tracks.

“The attempts to open Quarter Horse permitted tracks without using true sanctioned Quarter Horse racing is exactly what it looks like,” Fisch said. “And that’s to open a card room or a casino without any true commitment to racing.”

Gulfstream Park Thoroughbred After Racing Program began seeking a Quarter Horse license late last year. The track contended that it ran a race qualifying for a Quarter Horse license Dec. 31 – using Thoroughbred horses – and the next day, it canceled a Quarter Horse race on the overnight. Then came the April 8 match race using barrel-racing riders, which was run over the objections of horsemen. Following the race, the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association issued a formal objection to the Quarter Horse license.

Officials of the FHBPA declined to comment specifically about the issue, citing ongoing purse negotiations with Gulfstream. The horsemen’s contract with Gulfstream expires Dec. 31.

“We’re obviously not happy about it,” said Kent Stirling, the executive director of the FHBPA.

Timothy Ritvo, president of Gulfstream Park, said Gulfstream’s only intention in running the races was to protect the Quarter Horse racing permit out of fears that the legislature would disallow permits sometime during the 2012 legislative session. The advice came from Marc Dunbar, Gulfstream’s lobbyist, who has been advising most of the other companies seeking Quarter Horse permits or licenses, including the barrel-racing facilities. Dunbar did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Ritvo called the effort to protect the permit “a strategic move by us so that if destination casinos come we could get a place up.” In Broward County, where Gulfstream is situated, parimutuel facilities can also operate slot machines, which are far more lucrative than card rooms. Gulfstream already operates a casino at its Hallandale Beach property, under its own racing permit, which allows 2,000 slot machines.

Ritvo said that if Gulfstream pursued another casino, it would cut horsemen in on a share of the revenue. He said Gulfstream’s owner, the auto-parts manufacturer and horseman Frank Stronach, has a commitment to live Thoroughbred racing.

“But it’s easy to see why they’re having trouble trusting us,” Ritvo said. “The horsemen are concerned that someday barrel racing will substitute for Thoroughbred racing, and our lobbyists have pursued a barrel-racing license in Gretna. Frank is a free-enterprise guy, so he wasn’t going to stand in the way of that, something that doesn’t affect us way up there.”

Note: A previous version of this article applied the terms permit and license interchangably for Quarter Horse racing.  According to the Dept. of Business and Professional Regulation, an establishment obtains a permit and then each year applies for a license.