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Thursday, 8 January 2015

Florida Quarter Horse Racing Needs a Summer Meet

Since 2010, Hialeah Park has been holding Quarter Horse meets. "The World's Most Beautiful Racetrack" was shut down in 2001 after losing a dispute over race dates with Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course, but loose gambling laws regarding Quarter Horse racing in Florida allowed the track to reopen with a card room, which has since been expanded into a full casino.

      Hialeah is the home of the only American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) sanctioned, recognized pari-mutual Quarter Horse racing in Florida. The time for that to change is now.

      The Hialeah horse population comes from two groups of horsemen: shippers from other states, and locals. After the meet ends, the shippers go back home, and the locals are left with three options: lay up until the next meet, participate in phony pari-mutual "races" at tracks such as Oxford Downs or Gretna and/or run in match races at bush tracks throughout Florida and surrounding states. There are many match-racing facilities dotted throughout Georgia and the Carolinas that several Quarter Horses compete at between Hialeah's meets.

      Match racing in the bushes exists for one reason: people want to race. They aren't trying to be dishonest to the betting public, but if they are given a place to race their horses, then they're going to do so. However, this does lead to a problem come time for the pari-mutual meet at Hialeah, as bettors do not get any info about races that take place at places such as Eagle Rock Downs, Empress Downs, or Heritage Park. Some match racing facilities are recognized as training centers and some races may show up as workouts in a horse's past performances, but if bettors are not educated about the culture of match racing, they really have no way of knowing what that horse has actually been doing.

     The sham that is pari-mutual "racing" at places like Oxford Downs is a similar, but in my opinion more troubling problem. To understand it better, I strongly recommend watching these videos from Ray Paulick of The Paulick Report. In Florida, by holding at least 40 Quarter Horse "performances" in a fiscal year, an organization is eligible to operate a poker room. However, what exactly qualifies as a Quarter Horse performance or race is not specified at all, and it has led Oxford and Gretna to hold some very questionable events in order to take advantage of the law. Despite the fact that these races do offer pari-mutual wagering, they are not recognized by the AQHA.

     Although match racing will probably never be completely cleaned up and tracks like Oxford Downs can only be removed through changes to Florida law, there is a solution that can begin fixing Quarter Horse racing in the State: an actual pari-mutual meet in the summer.

     Summer Quarter Horse racing has not been held in Florida since 1991 at Pompano Park. With the current landscape of Florida racing, there are several venues that would be logical for a Quarter Horse meet. First and foremost, there is Pompano Park. The harness track races from October to June, leaving July, August and September available for a Quarter Horse meet. In fact, before it was decided that Quarter Horses would race at Hialeah, Pompano considered reviving their Quarter Horse meet. Secondly, there is Tampa Bay Downs. Tampa held Quarter Horse racing in the 1970s, and is also free in the summer months. They're an established, popular brand in Thoroughbred racing and do not have to worry about the track conversion that Pompano does. Third, there is Hialeah. They already conduct Quarter Horse racing, therefore summer dates would be logical. Finally, there is Calder, which seems to be the least-likely option. The facility is there, but the likelihood of Churchill Downs Inc. wanting to expand racing at Calder seems very low.

     Is there a demand for more Quarter Horse racing in Florida? It would seem so. The first eight cards of racing at the current Hialeah meet have handled $2,948,731, an average of $368,591 a day. In comparison, the first two weeks of the last meet, which started in November as opposed to December, brought in $1,090,151 over six cards, a daily average of $181,691. If we use the dates that directly correlate with this year, the handle was $1,997,918 over seven cards of racing, a daily average of $285,416. When Hialeah first started Quarter Horse racing, $100,000 in purses were paid out daily over 24 days of racing. This year, there are 40 days of racing with $140,000 being paid out daily. That is a 133% increase in purses over a five-year span. No matter how you look at it, pari-mutual Quarter Horse racing in Florida is seeing significant growth.

     The addition of a summer race meet in Florida has benefits for horseplayers, horsemen, and, most importantly, the horses. With the horses racing at recognized, recorded venues, the bettors can have more trust that they are getting completely accurate information about the horse they are planning on betting. Meanwhile, the horsemen will get to race for better purses than $2,000 per race. The horses will be racing over much safer surfaces, with far superior drug testing, plus there will likely bestabling at the track instead of the constant shipping required at "bush tracks." It seems like a win-win situation.

     There isn't much growth happening in North American horse racing anywhere. Florida Quarter Horse racing has grown substantially since it's revival, and it is now time for expansion. Summer racing is necessary in order to make Florida a major jurisdiction in the Quarter Horse world. The possibility is there. Someone now just needs to seize it.
     

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