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Politics

Judge Sides With Horse Track Despite 'Our Gang' Races

May 26, 2016 - 6:30pm

Writing that the races were comparable to an "entry-level campers' horse show held at the conclusion of a two-week YMCA summer camp," an administrative law judge Thursday nevertheless found that state regulators lacked the authority to punish a tiny Hamilton County horse track for "flag drop" races held two years ago.

The Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering last year notified Hamilton Downs Horsetrack that, because some of the 2014 races --- in which two horses ambled down a dirt path after a red rag on a stick was waved --- lacked speed, the track operator did not run the number of races required by state law.

But, in a recommended order issued Thursday, Administrative Law Judge E. Gary Early found that gambling regulators do not have any laws or rules governing the "flag-drop" races or requiring horses to race at a certain speed. Early recommended that agency officials dismiss the complaint against the pari-mutuel operator.

While the administrative law judge sided with the track, Early clearly took a skeptical view of the races, which, he wrote, "must be seen to be believed."

Videos of the races, played during a hearing in the case last month, "show a series of races involving --- as a rule --- tired, reluctant, skittish, or disinterested horses moving at a slow pace down the dust-choked path," Early wrote in a 28-page order. "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. … The overall quality of the videotaped races was about what one would expect of an entry-level campers' horse show held at the conclusion of a two-week YMCA summer camp."

In the complaint against Hamilton Downs, gambling regulators alleged that the North Florida facility failed to "operate all performances at the date and time specified on its license."

But the allegation "deals with the "number, date and time of performances, and not to the quality of the performances," Early wrote, and is "insufficient to support a disciplinary sanction based on what the division perceives to be inadequate speed, 'breaking' ability, or competitiveness of any given race."

In an endnote to his 28-page ruling, Early noted that he agreed with a former state regulator "who expressed amazement" that the June 2014 performances "could be construed as horse racing."

"This case has been decided on the failure of the division to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that a standard applicable to quarter horse racing was violated. In all likelihood, the division probably believed it to be unnecessary to establish a 'standard' that would define a 'race' as something other than horses ambling slowly down a crude dirt path through a field," Early wrote. "While the 'races' in this case violated no established standard for the conduct of a contest between horses, the video establishes that the 'races' … were more evocative of an Our Gang comedy short than an undercard at Pimlico."

State regulators had also objected to a race involving two horses owned by the same owner, known as a "coupled" entry. Those races are permitted in other types of horse races, which generally involve up to eight horses instead of the two running in the flag drops. None of the state regulators who were at the track at the time of the race in June 2014 objected to the "coupled" entry, and the race was made "official" after it was run, meaning that it counted toward Hamilton Downs' required number of performances for the year.

Again siding with Hamilton Downs, Early rejected state regulators' "efforts to cobble together various statutory and regulatory definitions" by which to nullify the coupled entry race.

"What is missing in the rules of the division is any suggestion that coupled entries are, per se, illegal, or that races with coupled entries are subject to invalidation on that basis alone," he wrote.

Richard Gentry, a lobbyist and lawyer for the Hamilton Downs facility, praised Early's ruling.

"The administrative hearing officer found, just as we had been maintaining all along, that there were no rules for the department or for (track owner Glenn Richards) to follow. We think that this is a fair and proper ruling," Gentry said.

Hamilton Downs started the "flag drop" races --- in which two riders compete against each other on a straight track for a short distance after a cloth is waved --- months after state regulators in 2014 reversed a previous decision that had allowed the track to get a pari-mutuel license for barrel racing.

Early's decision could play a role in whether Hamilton Downs is able to add slot machines to its pari-mutuel activities. Hamilton County is one of six --- along with Brevard, Gadsden, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington --- where voters have approved slots at local pari-mutuels. The Florida Supreme Court is now poised to decide, in a case filed by Gretna Racing in Gadsden County, whether slot machines require the express permission of the Legislature, even if local voters give slots the go-ahead in referendums. The court will hear arguments in the Gretna case next month.

Comments

Judge Early defies the "Regulators"; kinda like "David & Goliath".... supporting "horse contests" like the ones down "Main St" in "days of old", started by gunshot or waving an old shirt. Now, THAT's the kind of Judge I CAN support,.. (even if he does "walk around" in a robe).

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