Quarterhorse racing means more poker

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By Jim Freer
Special to Ante Up

 The Isle Casino & Racing at Pompano Park has decided to not hold a quarterhorse racing meet this year, and thus will not be able to expand its poker room’s daily operations from 12 hours to 24 hours.

But the harness track/casino in Pompano Beach remains interested in adding quarterhorse racing starting in 2010, Michael Bloom, vice president and general manager, said in late January.

Meanwhile, late 2009 apparently is the earliest any of Florida’s new proposed quarterhorse tracks will open — featuring year-round poker, 12 hours a day.

 “The recession had a main impact” on Pompano Park’s decision to delay its plans, Bloom said.

 It would cost about $400,000 for a first-time conversion from harness racing to quarterhorse racing, Bloom said. In addition to differences in track configuration, a harness track has a much harder surface than a quarterhorse track.

Pompano Park felt potential quarterhorse fans might have more money to bet in 2010 for an opening season.

Also in late January, Pompano Park was not ready to sign a race-purses contract with the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association, which would arrange for owners of Florida-bred quarterhorses and some from other states to race at Pompano Park.

 Officials of Pompano Park and of the quarterhorse group agreed that a contract was needed by late January to coordinate the quarterhorse race meet that was planned for July 3 to Aug. 15.

 The last quarterhorse races in Florida with parimutuel wagering were at Pompano Park in 1991.

The opportunity to have a poker room is a primary reason that several investment groups are preparing to bring quarterhorse racing back to Florida.

Since 1997,  a state law has permitted quarterhorse tracks and all other parimutuels to have card rooms year-round up to 12 hours a day. To be eligible for a poker room, a quarterhorse track would need to hold a minimum of 40 racing programs per year.

By holding harness races, Pompano Park has a 12-hour poker permit. Pompano Park also has a quarterhorse permit. Thus, for every year that it holds a quarterhorse meet it will have a second 12-hour poker permit.

The extension of parimutuel poker licenses to 24 hours is among changes the Florida Legislature might consider this year, said state Sen. Dennis Jones (R-Seminole). Jones is chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, which has initial jurisdiction over parimutuel issues.

Bloom declined to discuss legislative issues, but he said Pompano Park will remain interested in quarterhorse racing even if a law change lets it have 24-hour poker with its harness permit.

“Even if we have a second permit (quarterhorses), we would probably not have more than 18 hours per day of poker and the hours would mirror our casino hours,” Bloom said.
 Pompano Park’s poker room is open from noon until midnight Monday through Friday and from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. But the hours are changing come April 1.

Like many other Florida parimutuels, Pompano Park competes with tribal casinos that can be open 24 hours a day for poker.

Since 2007, three other groups have received quarterhorse track permits from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. Officials and all of those groups have said they plan to include poker rooms, once they build and open their tracks.

Dr. Steve Fisch, president of the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association, said officials of the proposed Hamilton Downs have told him they hope to hold their first quarterhorse meet in October. The track would be in Jasper, in Hamilton County about 70 miles west of Jacksonville.

Fisch, who is in frequent contact with applicants, said 2010 is the earliest he expects any of the other quarterhorse tracks with poker rooms to open.

Gretna Racing has state regulators’ approval to open a quarterhorse track in Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee. ELH Jefferson has state approval to open a quarterhorse track in Hamilton County, east of Tallahassee. A group headed by David Romanik and Paul Micucci filed both applications.

Green Bridge Development Co., headed by Michael Goldstein, owns DeBary Real Estate Holdings, which has state approval to build a quarterhorse track in DeBary in Volusia County.

Green Bridge also has filed an application to open a quarterhorse track, with a poker room, in Fort Myers under the name Fort Myers Downs.

Florida has about 59,000 quarterhorses. Fisch, a veterinarian, said some are bred for racing and others are bred for show purposes.

Quarterhorse races are usually at a quarter-mile, and in most cases on a straightaway.

Fisch said there are several locations in Florida where owners hold informal races.

Many Florida-bred quarterhorses also race in state-sanctioned races in the sport’s major states — Oklahoma, New Mexico, California and Louisiana.

The FQHRA has been advising several of the Florida applicants on racing issues and will help them bring horse owners from Florida and other states to Florida tracks, Fisch said.

 “Our goal is to bring quality quarterhorse racing to Florida,” he said. “The industry is here, and by adding racing it would add jobs and help the state’s economy.”