By Jim Freer
Hialeah Park is making some big changes in its quarter horse racing, most notably by cutting its number of days with races and not holding its next race meet until June 2017.
In another pending change, Hialeah Park (Hialeah) is preparing to move its horsemen’s contract, for business that includes race purse negotiations, to the recently formed South Florida Quarter Horse Association (SFQHA). That group has links to the controversial Gretna Racing in the Florida Panhandle town of Gretna.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of Florida will begin hearing arguments on a case in which Gretna is seeking to require the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuels to approve its application for a casino that would have slot machines. If the court rules in favor of Gretna, it could lead to a significant expansion of pari-mutuel casinos in Florida.
Hialeah’s schedule for 2017 shows it running all of its races in June with 36 race cards on 18 days during that month. In its 2015-2016 meet, the Hialeah, Fla., track had 36 race cards over 36 days from late December to late February.
A state law requires Hialeah to have at least 36 race cards a year to keep the license for its casino, which it opened in 2012.
“I don’t know if quarter horse racing is welcome there anymore,” said Dr. Steve Fisch, immediate past president of the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association (FQHRA) which has represented horsemen in every meet since Hialeah began quarter horse racing in 2009.
If the Florida Legislature next spring allows pari-mutuels to decouple live racing from other gaming, there is the prospect that Hialeah might not be required to have another race meet.
Hialeah is scheduling its next race meet for the last possible weeks in Florida’s 2016-2017 fiscal year.
But Hialeah president John Brunetti Jr. last week said the track is changing its schedule primarily to reduce the costs for holding a race meet, and not for expectations of decoupling. He is the son of John Brunetti Sr., the chairman of the family owned track.
Hialeah has lost money on quarter horse racing in each of its seven meets for the sport. It did not have readily available data on its quarter horse racing revenues and expenses for 2015-2016.
Schedule Not Announced
Hialeah has not yet publicly announced its racing schedule for the state’s 2016-2017 fiscal year.
HorseracingFLA obtained information on Hialeah’s schedule through a review of documents the track filed with the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.
On its Web site, Hialeah notes that “Quarter Horse Racing dates and information about the upcoming season will be posted on this page in the near future.”
If decoupling is authorized, pari-mutuels would be able to stop holding horse races, greyhound races or jai-alai games while still having poker rooms and in-bound simulcasts (including thoroughbreds). In counties where casinos with slot machines are permitted, de-coupled pari-mutuels would be able to keep them.
Hialeah is among pari-mutuels that have told the Legislature that they would like the option of decoupling.
“As for decoupling, we are not going to make a decision (schedule) based on speculation,” Brunetti said. “It (decoupling) is not done yet. If it happens, it would give us flexibility.”
Brunetti said Hialeah is moving its racing back to June “to try something different” to help determine what time of year might be best for handle and attendance.
In 2015-2016 Hialeah set a meet record and several single-day records for all-sources handle. But high purse structure is still preventing a profit.
Simulcast wagering accounts for the vast majority of betting on Hialeah races. It is likely that a shift to two race cards a day would lead to a spreading of available betting dollars, and result in lower total handle.
Brunetti said that in 2017 Hialeah will continue to have traditional quarter horse racing with a starting gate.
The SFQHA, Hialeah’s designated new horsemen’s group, has several leaders and organizers that are part of the North Florida Horsemen’s Association which is the horsemen’s group at Gretna Racing.
Gretna began racing in 2011 with the country’s first pari-mutuel barrel racing. A Florida administrative court declared that racing illegal in 2013. Since then, Gretna has had “flag drop” races with two quarter horses in each race.
In an upcoming article, we will look at how a change in horsemen’s groups might lead to a vastly different list of trainers, owners and horses at Hialeah.
Under its quarter horse license, Hialeah can run a “mixed meet” with up to 50 percent of its races as thoroughbred races. But it has not run any thoroughbred races, partly because there have been no weeks when it could have run without going head-to-head with Gulfstream Park or with Calder Casino & Race Course.
Brunetti said that thoroughbred racing “is not under consideration” at this time.
Hialeah has not had thoroughbred racing since 2001. In 2002, the Florida Legislature allowed thoroughbred tracks to pick their own race dates—ending the system under which state regulators awarded race dates.
That left Hialeah with no dates on which it could race without competition from better financed Gulfstream and Calder. The Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering revoked Hialeah’s thoroughbred license in 2003 after it did not hold a race meet for two consecutive years.
Hialeah has chosen not to renew its horsemen’s contract with the FHQRA, which expires this July 1.
That horsemen’s group is the only Florida affiliate of the American Quarter Horse Racing Association, which sanctions races around the country and sets standards for quarter horse tracks on medication for horses and safety for horses and jockeys.
Hialeah’s relationship with the FQHRA has often been tense. They have had disputes over Hialeah’s selection of race dates, and Hialeah has objected to the FQHRA using money from an expense account in court and administrative cases aimed at restricting Gretna’s activities.
Fisch, a veterinarian in Tallahassee, is concerned that Hialeah’s agreement with the new group could set a precedent for other Florida pari-mutuels, including thoroughbred tracks, to make deals with horsemen’s groups “that they think they can control.”
“But it is not necessarily a done deal,” he said.
A state law requires quarter horse tracks to have a purses contract with the FQHRA or with another group that represents a majority of the trainers and owners that have horses racing at a track.
The state’s laws on pari-mutuels have similar specific requirements of contracts with such groups as the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Tampa Bay Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
Fisch said the FQHRA plans to challenge whether the SFQHA meets the eligibility standards for contracts at Hialeah.
He declined to say whether his group is planning an administrative complaint with the Florida DPMW or a lawsuit.
Brunetti declined to respond to Fisch’s statements.
He said that Hialeah “cannot comment on pending litigation.”
Supreme Court Case
In 2012, voters in Gadsden County where Gretna is located approved a county referendum that authorizes Gretna Racing to add a casino with slot machines. Gretna Racing’s primary owner is the Poarch Creek Tribe of Indians, which owns several casinos in Alabama.
Broward and Miami-Dade are the only Florida counties in which pari-mutuels can have slot machines.
The Florida DPMW denied Gretna Racing’s application for a casino license. It has noted Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s opinion that there should be no geographical expansion of pari-mutuel casinos without the approval of the Florida Legislature.
Gretna Racing filed a suit against the Florida DPMW, and it is under review by the Supreme Court of Florida. A ruling is expected this summer.
Voters in five other Florida counties have approved ballot issues that authorize casinos for their pari-mutels.
If the court rules in favor of Gretna Racing, several other pari-mutuels also would be ready to open casinos. Several other counties would probably schedule votes on authorizing casinos for their pari-mutuels.