Judge dismisses complaint against Hamilton County horse track

By Taryn Phaneuf | Jun 3, 2016

TALLAHASSEE – Despite his criticism of the horse races held at Hamilton Downs in Jasper, an administrative law judge dismissed a state regulator’s complaint that alleged some of the track’s races don’t count.

The Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering claimed Hamilton Downs violated its license by hosting flag-drop races. Because those “do not qualify as horse races,” the track didn’t run enough races over the five-day period in June 2014, the complaint stated.

In his recommended order, Administrative Law Judge E. Gary Early determined the division didn’t sufficiently prove that those races should be nullified, so he had to dismiss the suit.

“It’s an unfortunate ruling, but I understand why the judge made the decision that he did,” Amanda Simmons Luby, an equine attorney at Shutts & Bowen in Orlando, told the Florida Record. “Ultimately, the judge was upholding precedent on an extremely narrow issue – whether the ‘racetrack’ met the skeletal requirements for conducting a certain number of horse ‘races’ in that year… . The larger issue is why we have a governmental agency that permits these pari-mutuel wagering licenses to be issued in the first place when the organizations to which they are granted have only one objective: secure card room and slot licenses to the long-term detriment of a horse industry that employs thousands of families within the state, in both the agricultural and entertainment industries.”

Flag drop racing at Hamilton Downs involved two horses racing about 110 yards down a dirt track in the middle of an open field, according to the judge’s order. It lacks a starting gate or line. There’s no grandstand. The betting window is in a shed. Early quoted Louis Haskel Jr., a state steward in charge of overseeing the Hamilton Downs meet, who said, “nothing about Hamilton Downs is real in terms of racetrack standards.”

Tracks like Hamilton Downs draw the ire of critics who see them using their licenses to pursue other gambling opportunities while running sham races. They think these facilities could degrade the state’s legitimate breeding and racing industries and allow gambling to expand, Simmons Luby said.

Hamilton County is one of several counties where voters have said local pari-mutuels can add slot machines. The Florida Supreme Court is set to decide whether those counties can in fact have slots or if they require the Legislature’s permission. During proceedings, Glenn Richards, majority owner of Hamilton Downs, admitted the 2014 season was important because it meant the racetrack qualified for a card room license and slots.

Simmons Luby called races like those held at Hamilton Downs “a mockery.”

“The judge could not help but elaborate on exactly why the flag drop horse ‘races’ were ridiculous," she said, adding that the American Quarter Horse Association – the national breed registry – doesn't recognize those races as legitimate competition.

Early remarked on video evidence showing “tired, reluctant, skittish, or disinterested horses moving at a slow pace down the dust-choked path.”

For the most part, the horses’ top speed was a canter, he wrote.

“Horses often simply stood at the starting line before slowly plodding down the track. In one instance, a horse actually backed up until a bystander took it by the lead,” the order states. “Haskell noted races in which riders fell off of their horses, or in which a horse left the course. He described numerous races, aptly, as noncompetitive because one or both of the entrants walked, including one race ... in which the racing steed took 1 minute and 45 seconds to cover the 110-yard course.

“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,” Early wrote.

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