TALLAHASSEE — Legislators are still at odds over whether to expand casino gambling, but they appear ready to quietly revive a dead industry in Florida: quarter horse racing.
A bill approved by a House committee Monday would allow Hialeah to reopen its legendary horse track by first running quarter horses — the stockier, bigger-boned horses known for racing the quarter mile — and then phase into thoroughbred racing.
Tracks with quarter horse permits — Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar and Hialeah and Gulfstream racetracks in South Florida — would be able to offer quarter horse racing at night.
And quarter horse tracks are in development in Hamilton, Gadsden, Flagler, Marion and Lee counties, where they are taking advantage of loopholes in the parimutuel law that benefit rural regions. Each of the new tracks would operate card rooms and some could run intertrack wagering, the lucrative arrangement in which patrons bet on horse races around the country.
A similar plan to revive quarter horse racing is under way in the Senate, where a series of amendments are expected to be attached to a Senate bill today.
It's an answer to the prayers of the quarter horse industry, which for years has operated in the shadows of Florida's thoroughbred empire. Even though one in five horses in Florida is a quarter horse, owners must ship their racers to Louisiana, Kentucky, New Mexico, Texas or California.
"If we get quarter horse racing in Florida, those horses will come back to the state and they'll bring jobs," said Steve Fisch, a Tallahassee veterinarian and president of the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association.
This spring alone, he has birthed 30 foals from mares whose owners sent their horses to Florida because of the mild winters and the prospect of a quarter horse racing revival.
"A high percentage of these horses are here because we might get racing," Fisch said.
But to potential competitors in the parimutuel industry — the dog tracks, jai alai frontons and Calder Racetrack in South Florida, which doesn't have a quarter horse permit — the notion of renewing a dying industry in Florida is a scam.
"These quarter horse permits are nothing more than a blatant attempt to open up a card room and any form of gambling that may come down the pike," said Dan Adkins, president of Mardi Gras Casino in Hollywood, which operates a greyhound track, card room and slot machines. "Quarter horse racing is dead. It is not coming back. This is a bait and switch."
Adkins points to the provision in the bill that allows for racetracks to lease another facility to run their quarter horses. "They could lease a dog track and still qualify under the law," he said. "It has nothing to do with quarter horses. It has to do with opening up card rooms."
There hasn't been a quarter horse race in Florida since 1991, when the arrival of slot machines on cruise ships and Indian reservations began to undercut the parimutuel industry across the board. But in 2005 a loophole was written into the card room law to allow anyone to operate poker rooms if they ran as few as one quarter horse race a year.
In 2007, the Legislature loosened the law again to make poker rooms more lucrative.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.