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Imaginations race at talk of a track

The news that private entrepreneurs and public officials want to bring horse racing to Pasco County has caught the imagination of two horse breeding groups who want to see more of their kind of racing in Florida. "Word's spreading like wildfire," said Walter Warrington, executive director of the Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association. After a recent tour of Pasco, "I was really impressed with what I saw," he said. "The land here is suited for horses."

Warrington delivered his message to the Pasco County Committee of 100 and the Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce early Wednesday evening.

The groups had scheduled a reception at Saint Leo College so their members could mix, but talk of bringing pari-mutuel racing to the county turned the meeting into something of a pep rally.

Buddy Newsome, president of the Florida Quarterhorse Breeders and Owners Association, also supports Pasco's exploration of the idea. He said a track in Pasco would provide a needed racing outlet for native-bred horses.

"We've had some very, very good horses leave Florida because we don't have anyplace to run quarter horses," said Newsome, who owns and is president of Pasco Motors of Dade City.

Quarter horses and standardbred horses don't run the same race that thoroughbreds run. While thoroughbreds run races of a mile or more, quarter horses sprint through races lasting a quarter-mile to a half-mile. Standardbred horses run mile-long races pulling a harness rider in a sulky, a two-wheeled carriage.

Although local racing enthusiasts originally envisioned bringing harness racing to Pasco, a Tallahassee lawyer familiar with the state's pari-mutuel racing laws says that is unlikely.

Pompano Park is the only track in the state with a permit allowing harness racing alone. The Legislature would have to change state law for another harness racing permit to be issued, according to Doug Mannheimer, who represents the standardbred owners association.

Mannheimer could not attend the meeting because of an unexpected conflict in his schedule, but he sent a brief videotape in which he explained some of the steps county officials would have to take to bring horse racing to Pasco.

It would take a four-fifths vote of the County Commission to clear the way for the state to issue a quarter horse racing permit, he said. That permit would require quarter horses to run at least half the races at the track. The other half of the races could be harness races.

Because the harness racers require a larger track, the facility probably would have to include a "track within a track," Mannheimer said.

To win the support of local business owners, the horse breeders said a race track would improve the values of surrounding property and foster economic growth.

"You put a nice horse farm in the middle of the county, and you'll have a lot of nice homes built around it," Warrington said.

The president of a group that hopes to develop the track as part of multiuse sports complex also pitched the economic spinoffs that such a facility would bring.

Joe Smith, president of the Tampa Bay Sports Consortium, said a horse racing track could lead to the development of an "artisans' village" where skilled craft workers fashion saddles and harnesses.

"The important thing now," Smith said, "is we're going to need all of your help."

Along with the race track, the sports complex could include a spring-training baseball stadium and sports medicine clinics for humans and horses.

Smith has not identified a site for the project, but has talked of building it within five miles of Interstate 75. He said Wednesday that pari-mutuel regulations would require that the new track be at least 25 miles from Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar.