By Bill Finley
In Florida, it doesn’t take much to be a “racetrack.” Places that go by the names of Gretna Racing, Oxford Downs and Hamilton Downs have been able to offer forms of gaming at their facilities by holding races that, by no logical standards, resemble anything close to what is reasonably considered actual horse racing. The races are called “flag-drop races” and are oftentimes nothing more than two Quarter Horses starting at the drop of a flag and running at slow speeds until reaching the finish line some 100 yards from the start. They are parimutuel races, but during the meet run at Hamilton Downs during the 2015-2016 fiscal year the handle was zero. Not one bet on one race was placed. And one race at Hamilton included a 20-year-old horse.
Members and officials with legitimate Quarter Horsemen’s associations, and even their counterparts in Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing have been irate that the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering has allowed these meets to exists, but what has been a strange and troubling situation may be about to get much worse. Management at iconic Hialeah has been making moves that indicate they, too, may be dropping legitimate Quarter Horse Races and replacing them with the type of racing that is conducted at Oxford, Gretna and Hamilton.
“What they are trying to do is to have racing that is not recognized by the American Quarter Horse Association,” said Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association President Ron Smith. “This is fake horse racing. Everybody in the Thoroughbred business should be scared to death over this because if they can get us, they can get them, too.”
Hialeah has severed ties with the AQHA, which sanctions races around the country and sets standards for quarter horse tracks, and its only Florida affiliate, the FQHRA, and signed an agreement with a group called the South Florida Quarter Horse Association, about which little is known.
Conducting “flag-drop racing” allows Florida tracks to have casinos and other forms of gaming is because the language in the racing statutes is so poorly defined that it requires a track simply to have “horse racing.” Thus far, the courts have determined that flag drop racing is horse racing. There are, after all, horses and they race against one another…more or less. Usually, these races consist of two horses.
Hialeah has slots, a poker room and electronic table games. It cannot have them without holding horse racing of some kind and it can not conduct a racing meet without an agreement with a horsemen’s group.
Hialeah owner John Brunetti Sr. did not rule out that flag-drop racing would be held at Hialeah in 2017.
“I’ve always wanted this to be a Thoroughbred track but the other tracks ganged up on me and basically shut me down,” he said. “Then we tried Quarter Horse racing. I did not have a good relationship with their horsemen’s group. I was used to working with Thoroughbred horsemen. We didn’t always agree but at least we all wanted to do our best for Thoroughbred racing. It wasn’t the same way with the Quarter Horse people. I’ve lost $10 million running the Quarter Horse racing and I had to find a way to put a stop to that. There are still a lot of things going on, including with the legislature, so I’m not certain yet what we are going to do next year. But anything is possible. I call those other tracks (Gretna, Hamilton, Oxford) the ‘Mickey Mouse’ circuit. If I’m forced to join them I will. What else do people want me to do?”
Though Hialeah has not conducted a thoroughbred race since 2001, it remains one of the most famous and historic tracks in thoroughbred history. Listed on the National Register of Historical Places, Hialeah opened in 1925 and was the winter capital of horse racing in the U.S. For most of its history, Hialeah was awarded the prime winter dates by the Florida racing commissions, but when regulations were changed to allow any Florida track to run any time it wanted, Hialeah became the odd track out, unable to compete with Calder and Gulfstream.
But Hialeah had a second life. In 2009, it re-opened, a requirement to have alternate forms of gaming. Each year since, it ran a 40-day Quarter Horse meet. And while thoroughbred purists may not have been pleased to see another breed take over at a track of such significance, at least Hialeah was open, operating and conducting racing sanctioned by a legitimate organization, the AQHA and its affiliate, the FQHRA.
That, apparently, is about to change.
Tony Glover, the director of the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, did not return phone calls from the TDN. Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation Deputy Director of Communications Kathleen Keenan did respond to an email from the TDN that included several questions about Hialeah’s future, but the only information she provided was the dates Hialeah had applied for in 2017 and a list of new regulations covering pari-mutuel wagering. Many questions remain unanswered.
The only two certainties are: Hialeah plans to race 18 days in June, conducting a total of 36 cards by labeling each racing day as a doubleheader; and Hialeah management has managed to disassociate itself with the FQHRA and has come to an agreement with a group calling itself the South Florida Quarter Horse Association. In Florida, as in all states, a track cannot have gaming unless it has a signed agreement with a horsemen’s association.
According to current records available from the Florida Department of State Division of Corporations, the only officer or member listed under the SFQHA is a Tallahassee-based attorney Samual Ard, who is, according to the website floridalobbyist.gov, a lobbyist for Hialeah. Ard did not return phone calls seeking information about his connections with Hialeah and the operations of the SFQHA, which, beyond Ard, has no known members.
Previous documents involving the SFQHA include the names of Wesley Cox and Cindy Gramling, both representatives of the horsemen’s group representing Gretna racing. It appears that neither is any longer affiliated with the SFQHA.
So, how and why did the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering allow Hialeah to push out a legitimate horsemen’s group that had been there since Quarter Horse racing began at Hialeah and replace it with a group headed by a Hialeah lobbyist that has no known members?
“Those are the big questions we are asking ourselves,” Smith said. “I think Hialeah sent it over to them and they just rubber-stamped it. They didn’t do their homework, even though we warned them what was going to happen.”
That doesn’t mean that the courts don’t see through the farce.
In a ruling where Administrative Law Judge E. Gary Early ruled that Hamilton Downs could keep its license, he didn’t hide his disdain for the type of racing conducted there.
He wrote: “The races must be seen to be believed. The 14 events for which video evidence was received showed a series of races involving–as a rule–tired, reluctant, skittish, or disinterested horses moving at a slow pace down the dust-choked path. There was no marked starting line or finish line. The horses were often yards apart when the red rag-on-a-stick was waved. With one exception…the gait of the ‘racing’ horses ranged between a slow walk and a canter. Horses often simply stood at the starting line before slowly plodding down the track.” (
Early also noted that in one race it took a horse 1 minute and 45 seconds to finish the 110-yard race and said this of the races: “they were about what one would expect of an entry-level campers’ horse show held at the conclusion of a two-week YMCA summer camp.”
Will tired, reluctant, skittish, or disinterested horses moving at a slow pace soon be covering the same Hialeah track where Triple Crown immortals Citation, Seattle Slew, War Admiral, Whirlaway and Assault once raced?
Even Smith, who has never been involved in thoroughbred racing, understands how distasteful a scenario that would be.
“I think that it is an absolute shame that an historic racetrack like Hialeah would do this,” he said. “That track has been there a long time and there are still a lot of possibilities for a revival. It’s just sad that horse racing is not promoted as a positive. Evidently, they think it is a hindrance.”
But what is stopping Hialeah from running whatever kind of racing it wants? If the horsemen’s group is run by a lobbyist for the racetrack, why wouldn’t the horsemen’s group do whatever Hialeah management tells it to do? As things stand now, purses will come from the profits from Hialeah’s card room and will equal about $280,000 for the meet. Regulations require Hialeah to hold 288 races, meaning the average purse will be $972 a race.
“The problem with this is that it is in fact decoupling,” Smith said. “Because if in fact Hialeah and the horsemen’s group are one and the same they have decoupled. That’s because they are making their own rules and all their own decisions and there is no arm’s length between the two. There will be no horsemen’s group working in the best interests of racing.”
The Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association hasn’t given up its fight. It has filed suit against the Division of Pari-Mutuel Racing over its decision to recognize the SFQHA and not its group. The hearing will be held during the last week in October.
“We had a number of questions regarding whether the department had followed statutes and what have you when they recognized (the SFQHA),” Smith said. “They had 30 days to reply. We heard nothing from them; the department did not answer our questions. Now we will go before a judge and explain our position. We believe we can be successful in making what happened before go away and that we will once again be the horsemen’s group.” If that happens, Brunetti may be forced to run a “normal” Quarter Horse meet.
“The entire intent of the legislation that when coupled horse racing with casinos was this: you create a need for a breeding industry and all the jobs it creates,” Smith said. “If you have eight to 10 horses in each race and you have a true meet you need about 1,000 horses. That requires lot of broodmares and stallions to make that happen. If you’re looking at what Hialeah is trying to do it’s a sham when it comes to the idea of being an economic engine.”
While Hialeah hasn’t had thoroughbred horse racing in 15 years and Gretna, Oxford and Hamilton never have, the prospect of another racetrack with a casino being able to essentially hold gaming without actual horse racing is raising concerns within the Florida thoroughbred industry.
“Obviously, if you can drop a flag and have a couple kids on barrel horses run down the track and that qualifies you to run a casino, you really have no need for horse racing,” said Barry Berkelhammer, a member of the Board of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association. “Horse racing is expensive to run and that’s the main reason Churchill really doesn’t want to conduct racing at Calder. They just want to run a casino. The essence of the statutes and the way it was intended and presented was to keep an agricultural industry alive, which has positive economic impacts. The state allowed (casinos at racetracks) and passed it on that premise and now these wiseguy lawyers can find these little loopholes to declare the definition of a horse race is not actually defined in the statutes, and therefore who’s to argue a horse race isn’t a flag drop between two horses?
“(Gulfstream owner) Frank Stronach is committed to horse racing and loves horse racing, but at the same time, he is a businessman and his heirs are businesspeople. If at some point it becomes too difficult to offer horse racing and more profitable to exist without it then who’s to say what they will do? This could be a downward spiral that opens the door for destruction of horse racing.”