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Politics

Proposed Gambling Rules Headed for a Showdown?

July 20, 2015 - 8:00pm

At least two years in the making, proposed pari-mutuel regulations continue to leave industry operators divided, with some saying the rules don't go far enough and others complaining that the plan will put them out of business.

State gambling regulators held a hearing Monday on the latest version of the proposed rules, released last month for the third time in two years. The proposed regulations deal with everything from how much jockeys can weigh to the sizes of horse tracks and jai alai frontons. Much of the plan is aimed at curbing controversial rodeo-style barrel racing and "flag drop" horse races, first implemented by a small track in North Florida.

Donna Blanton, a lawyer who represents the North Florida Horsemen's Association, whose members include about 200 women who ride the horses at Gretna Racing in Gadsden County, told a hearing panel Monday that many of the proposals floated by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation's Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering were "invalid exercises" of the agency's authority.

Also, Blanton said, the proposed rules --- which bar jockeys from weighing more than 135 pounds and require jockeys to wear "unique racing colors and white pants registered with the racing secretary" along with helmets, vests and boots "specifically designed for horse racing when riding in racing or exercising horses" --- would put the women who ride the horses at the small facility out of a job.

"They'll be gone. They won't be here. And that's contrary to the fact that there's nothing in statute … that prohibits this kind of horse racing," Blanton told the four-member panel Monday morning. "It's perfectly legitimate. It's allowed. It's something you have licensed in the past."

Four years ago, state gambling regulators granted Gretna Racing a pari-mutuel permit for quarter-horse barrel racing --- the first, and possibly only, in the nation --- but a court later ruled that the permit was issued in error. State regulators later entered an agreement with the facility authorizing "flag drop" races, in which two horses race against each other in a straight line.

Gretna Racing is also in the midst of a legal battle over slot machines. A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal recently ruled that gambling regulators erred in denying the facility a slots license. The state is asking that the full court rehear the case in what is called an "en banc" hearing.

Florida horse owners and breeders not affiliated with the association Blanton represents strongly oppose barrel racing and "flag drop" races as pari-mutuel activities, in part because nearly all other races require more horses to compete.

Under the proposed rules, quarter-horse races would have to be conducted on tracks that are at least 1,300 feet in length, much longer than the track now in use at Gretna.

A legislative panel that oversees rules also questioned whether regulators went too far with a variety of the proposed rules. A letter from Joint Administrative Procedures Committee Senior Attorney Marjorie Holladay sent last week also asked whether costs associated with the proposed changes would exceed $200,000 a year, which would require legislative approval.

Some of the industry operators, all of whom were sworn in Monday, testified that the proposed requirements would cost from $500,000 to in excess of $1 million a year, including the costs of installing new "break-away" rails and starting gates.

A 10-day window to challenge the rules begins Tuesday.

"No matter what you do you're going to come up with a contested decision," Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association CEO Lonny Powell said.

But Powell and many of his allies who represent horse breeders and owners said that, overall, they were pleased with the plans, which he said "seem to reinforce reality" that barrel racing and flag drops are not legitimate.

"We want to make sure that expanded gambling doesn't happen through loopholes. Otherwise, we just want integrity in the business. We don't need made-up sports. What do we get to next? Hermit crab sprints? We can bet odd-even that the sun will be covered by clouds one day and that's pari-mutuel? It's just a real slippery slope. But we're encouraged by some of the comments we heard from the department today," Powell said.

The proposal won't rein in "gambling creep," said Paul Seago, of the anti-gambling organization "No Casinos."

"What they're trying to do today is a step in the right direction but not far enough," Seago said.

Other issues discussed at Monday's meeting included jai alai. The proposed rules would impose minimum standards for jai alai players to qualify to participate in games and would also require pari-mutuels to have at least eight different players or teams.

But David Cantina, general manager of Orlando Jai Alai Fronton and Race Book, said that the new regulations were problematic for his facility, the only jai alai fronton in the state that does not have a card room or slots.

"It will almost definitely put us out of business," Cantina said after the meeting ended.

Cantina said his operation --- which has relied mostly on revenues from simulcast games --- is in a "cash flow negative."

Dave Roberts, a lobbyist who represents Magic City Casino in Miami, which has a summer jai alai permit but has not yet begun jai alai performances, objected to the proposal that would require games to be played indoors and frontons to be constructed of granite.

He said that jai alai traditionally was played outside in France and Spain.

But department lawyer Jason Maine, a member of the hearing panel, questioned how an outdoor fronton would work while providing safety for the players, as required by the proposed rules, in rain- and heat-prone South Florida.

Doug Russell, who represents the International Jai Alai Players Association, objected that, while the proposed rules established outlines for jai alai frontons, they failed to include minimum standards for seating. Florida is now the only state in the country where jai alai --- the state's oldest professional sport --- is still played commercially.

Russell said the jai alai players' salaries have been shaved more than in half --- from $5,000 to $2,000 a month --- because pari-mutuels are focusing their efforts on more lucrative card rooms or slots.

"Most of my guys are skilled laborers on the side. … We're the only humans in the game," Russell said.

Other complaints involved a rule that would require pari-mutuels to publish information regarding horses' qualifications. Under the proposed rule, the racing secretary would have to ensure that at least three published past performances, whether in races or workouts, were available to the public prior to a race.

That won't give bettors enough information, said Tom Ventura, president of the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. Tracks or owners can "pick and choose" the data they want published, he said.

"It's really, really important to see what a horse has done," Ventura said.

Since the rule-making process has dragged on for more than two years, some participants at Monday's hearing are hoping that lawmakers will address the gambling regulatory issue when they reconvene in January for the regular legislative session.

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