TALLAHASSEE — It's pitched as a way to modernize and toughen quarter horse gambling regulations in Florida.
But after nearly 17 years without a single legal bet on a quarter horse race in Florida, is it really just a way to let a handful of businesses corner the market and capitalize on card room gambling?
That's the debate surrounding a bill pushed by Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, that easily passed the Florida Senate Thursday, 33-5. The plan (SB 604) would impose tougher requirements on anyone applying for a quarter horse racing permit in the future.
But stricter standards wouldn't apply to six applicants that applied for a quarter horse racing permit since February, including one in Citrus County. The six join two others that have applied since last year, when lawmakers greatly relaxed card-room gambling rules.
The incentive: Under current law, quarter horse permit holders can run just one race a year but operate lucrative poker games much more often.
To appease critics, Jones agreed to amend the bill Thursday to require 20 race days in 2009. But that might not be enough. Besides antigambling forces, the measure has also drawn the ire of competing parimutuels, who worry competitors will be able start up easily with the exemptions in the bill.
"It is not going to be a boon for quarter horse racing. It's going to be boon for those permit holders to operate card rooms," said an opponent, Rep. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.
Even state regulators question the furry of interest in quarter horse racing, per se. "I think the grandfather clause is the reason … they just applied to get in under the bell," said Dave Roberts, Florida's director of parimutuel wagering.
The Citrus County proposal is affiliated with officials in the mega Gulfstream Park facility in South Florida. Five more companies, including at least two tied to Gulfstream executives, applied March 14 to 19. They include locations in Brevard, Gadsden, Marion, Sumter and Volusia counties.
Gulfstream Park lobbyist Marc Dunbar said restrictions in state law on running quarter horses — unlike competing gambling venues — make card rooms a way to subsidize the return of quarter horse racing.
Quarter horse racing advocates say running the compact, sprinting quarter horses will help the state's economy. Florida is home to 20,000 more quarter horses than even equine mecca Kentucky, but the owners have to take the horses out of state for event and purses, said Steve Fisch, president of the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association.
For every horse competing, Fisch projects seven jobs in Florida — and tax money, too.
He supports the exemptions for the six, saying it allows qualified companies to start up while limiting their competition later.
For example, the recent permit applications would be exempt from the 100-mile minimum distance requirement for a new parimutuel to be near a new horse racing site, for example. The Feb. 1 permit request for quarter horse racing in Crystal River at Rock Crusher Canyon would be a 57-mile drive from Tampa Bay Downs, which has a dormant quarter horse permit.
Citing the economic benefits, Jones and the House sponsor, Homosassa Republican Ron Schultz, said the exemption is to be fair to companies that applied under existing state law.
But Schultz's House colleagues aren't convinced leaving the bill's fate uncertain in the House. A committee rejected the grandfather clause last month. And even some supporters of that idea measure say it may not be worth the hassle. "There are a lot of important issues facing the Legislature, beyond gambling," said Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.