Op/Ed: ‘Racing’ at Hamilton Downs

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The track and starting gate at Hamilton Downs

by Bernie Dickman

Florida’s horsemen have been involved in various vicious battles for the past four-plus decades, ever since the early 70s, when the state’s Supreme Court justices decided to rotate the winter racing dates between the Donn family’s Gulfstream Park and John W. Galbreath’s Hialeah Park.

There was the time the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association went after Doug Donn over payment of purses without the “blending” of pari-mutuel pools; and when a splinter group of owners and trainers broke off from the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association and attempted to form their own group; and when the “no-casino” advocates spent millions trying to thwart the advent of racinos at South Florida’s pari-mutuel entities; and when managements at Gulfstream and Calder Race Course each expanded their schedules in 2001 and squeezed venerable Hialeah out of the racing rotation. That’s only the short list.

But who would ever have suspected that the next big battle would be over what constitutes a horse race?

Highly-controversial barrel racing in northwest Florida led to a major outburst from the thoroughbred and quarter horse communities and an overabundance of court cases, and now Creek Entertainment Gretna offers simulcasting on horses, dogs and jai alai, and a poker room that had gross receipts of more than $2 million in the last fiscal year. Another of the entities that horsemen call the “rogue” tracks began a laughable version of two-horse “races” behind a produce market in the village of Oxford, near The Villages, one of the fastest growing senior communities in the country. Now the Oxford Downs poker room is seriously impacting the poker room at the former Ocala Jai Alai fronton, even though the two are located more than an hour apart. Whereas the latter was continually doing business of about $3.5 million annually, that number dwindled to under $3 million in the last fiscal year, and in the first four months of this year, Oxford Downs is doing nearly twice as much business as Ocala.

It’s no wonder the horsemen are up in arms.

The latest version of the “rogue” tracks–Hamilton Downs–is located just west of I-75, within a stone’s throw of the Georgia border. Owned by an old horseman named Glenn Richards, it’s two exits north of the spot where Richards formerly built a jai alai fronton, and later a poker room. According to the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering’s reports, there hasn’t been any poker activity since August of 2015.

Hamilton Downs is currently in the midst of a five-day quarter horse race meet, in order to qualify for poker and potentially slots under the vague Florida rules, the ones under siege from all corners of the pari-mutuel industry. And Richards is no novice when it comes to pari-mutuels. Aside from his jai alai and poker efforts, he grew up learning the racing game by mucking stalls for his father, a trainer at Ruidoso Downs, Sunland Park, and several other tracks in the Southwestern U. S.

His current “meeting” was originally scheduled to run for five days, from last Saturday through today. He needs 20 performances to qualify as a meeting, and was going to run four eight-race programs each day over the five days, until Mother Nature intervened. After the Saturday and Sunday programs, heavy rain in the area was enough to cancel the races from Monday and Tuesday. The 100-yard track was a sea of mud, but not as bad was the narrow dirt path leading from the access road to the racing area.

There were seven personnel on hand from the state who deemed the situation an “act of God,” and under the statutes, the programs don’t have to be re-scheduled. Richards said that $15,000 had been wagered on the Saturday and Sunday programs.

Aside from all of the obvious elements that are rankling Richards’s detractors, the quality of the horses who are participating in the meeting already has the opposition boiling. There is a program available for each day’s racing, but no pedigree lines and no past performances. Many of the horses have their names misspelled, according to information supplied by the American Quarter Horse Association. Six of the entrants were scheduled to compete twice, and one, Jet Mohecan, one of 10 Paint horses entered, was set to go three times.

What opened the eyes the widest, however, is the ages of the competitors. The mare Jets American Class, who has no race record listed by Equibase, is an Appaloosa who was foaled in 1992. That’s 24 years in anyone’s book. In fact, there were four runners in all who were born in time to experience Y2K – the other three were products of 1995, 1997 and 1998. Only one horse in the whole group–the 7-year-old gelding Call Me Lena’s Boy–has a race record (8-0-1-0, $3,580), per Equibase.

According to Richards, each race had a purse of $250, to be divided $100 for first, $60 for second, $40 for third, $30 for fourth and $20 for fifth. The riders were all young ladies, several of whom were listed as the owners of the horses they rode. Several other riders, however, didn’t make it to Richards’s homemade wooden starting gate. Rumor has it that the people at Gretna told them if they came down to ride at Hamilton Downs, not to come back.

Richards said his final objective is to have slots, a poker room, simulcasting, and a nice, new “real” racetrack where two and three-year-old Florida-breds can compete for real purse money. His objective isn’t that far-fetched; it’s the winding road he’s taking toward it that has the industry up in arms.

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