Florida: The New Twilight Zone
“You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead: Your next stop, the Twilight Zone!” – Rod Serling, 1960.
Fifty years after I first heard those words on television, the Twilight Zone has, like so many other old-timers, moved to Florida. Apparently, it has engulfed the pari-mutuel industry, which has become something whose boundaries truly are that of imagination.
—Last Tuesday, Gulfstream Park held a day of live racing – its first since April 5 – that “completed” its 2012-13 meeting.
—Today, Gulfstream Park opens its first-ever summer meet, conducts a Fourth of July holiday card Thursday, races weekends through November, then begins its winter meet.
—After today's races at Gulfstream Park, a Florida Thoroughbred owner who has been denied a racing license in New York because of alleged ties to the late organized crime boss, John Gotti, has invited horsemen to a meeting for the purpose of organizing a new group to replace the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. His racing partner and trainer is vice president of the HBPA in Kentucky.
—Yesterday, Tampa Bay Downs held a day of live racing – its first since May 4 – that completed its 2012-13 meeting.
—Today, Tampa Bay Downs “opens” its 2013-14 meeting with a single card today and “resumes” in December.
—Calder, which is running Fridays-Sundays until they don't, tells horsemen stabled at the track they will lose their stalls if they race at Gulfstream Park. Gulfstream Park opens Palm Meadows training center rent free to horsemen wishing to compete at Gulfstream Park.
—Now that they are all operating “year-round,” Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs and Calder are selling imported simulcast signals to other pari-mutuel operations in Florida, competing against each other for the first time in this arena and reportedly slashing the price of signals to attract customers among tracks and jai-alai frontons.
—Today at Gulfstream Park, a licensed entity, Gulfstream Park Thoroughbred After Care Retirement Program (GTARP), will hold a 100-yard pari-mutuel Thoroughbred race at 10 a.m. Several members of the GTARP board of directors were unaware of this event until they read about it in the Daily Racing Form. (Note: DRF later reported the race would be 150 yards.)
—In May, an administrative hearings judge ruled the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering violated Florida law when it awarded a pari-license to Gretna Racing for Quarter horse barrel racing because it wasn't really horse racing. Shortly thereafter, the same government agency gave Gretna Racing an amended license for Quarter horse races that begin with the drop of a flag.
Where to begin?
Let's start with today's 100-yard Thoroughbred dash at Gulfstream Park. The Stronach Group that owns Gulfstream and controls the GTARP license has never fully stated its intentions with this second racing license. Marc Dunbar, the mastermind behind the Gretna Racing project (whose long-term goal is thought to be a card room/slots parlor in the Florida panhandle) is advising Gulfstream Park, so the similarities between today's event and Gretna scheme are to be expected. No one really knows what it is going on here, outside of, perhaps, Dunbar and some Stronach Group insiders.
Those left in the dark include four members of the GTARP board representing the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association (the non-profit also has four board members from Gulfstream Park and three “at large” members). They learned of today's “race” by reading about it in Daily Racing Form, as did the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
“That level of surprise, combined with not knowing what this all means, has my folks a little unsettled, to say the least,” said FTBOA chief executive officer Lonny Powell. “We need to have further conversations with Gulfstream Park and the GTARP board to find out how this could happen without discussion. The people from the FTBOA are Thoroughbred people, and they don't look at Thoroughbred racing as a 100-yard dash. We have been fighting Gretna on barrel racing, so this is concerning.”
Then we have today's horsemen's meeting, which the Paulick Report learned about on Twitter from the Little Dreams Racing Stable operated by trainer Dale Romans, breeder and owner Carlo Vaccarezza, and South Florida businessman John Williams.
“Spread the word, we're meeting tomorrow after the last race at Gulfstream Park in the trainers lounge, to form a new horsemans group, join us,” said the @ldrhorseracing Twitter account.
Little Dreams Racing co-founder Dale Romans, contacted in Kentucky, where he is vice president of the HBPA, said he was unaware of the meeting or any efforts to decertify the Florida HBPA and referred inquiries to Vaccarezza.
“We don't like what's going on,” said Vaccarezza, “the way the organization has been conducting itself. We are going to try to just break away from the Calder people, from the Florida HBPA. They are too attached to Calder, to Churchill. We would like to create our own group, Florida horsemen from Gulfstream Park.”
Vaccarezza said the “HBPA is not representing the true horsemen of Florida and we're sick and tired of that group. I don't want Barry Rose (FHBPA vice president), Phil Combest (president) and Kent Stirling (executive director) representing me.
“We've got a very, very strong group of horsemen: Owners, trainers and breeders,” Vaccarezza continued. “We'll have lawyers at the meeting if we decide to move forward, whatever the process is. We don't want to break the law.”
Questioned about his own past, Vaccarezza – best known in racing circles as the breeder of Breeders' Cup Turf winner Little Mike (the gelding runs in his wife Priscilla's name) – said he is not licensed in New York or Kentucky, but “I can get a license in Florida.”
Vaccarezza has been denied an owner's license more than once in New York because of allegations that he was closely associated with the late John Gotti, who died in federal custody in 2002, 10 years after the “Teflon Don” was convicted on multiple charges that included murder and racketeering. The feds once alleged Vaccarezza's Da Noi restaurant in New York, which Gotti frequented, was a front for the mob. Vaccarezza called the allegations “lies” and no charges against him were ever filed.
“I have never been arrested, never convicted, I pay my taxes. My biggest problem was a personal issue between me and the head counsel for the New York board,” Vaccarezza said. “We exchanged words. It was nasty.”
Was he an associate of the Gambino crime boss?
“I had a club in Miami (Mickey's), and he used to come to the club. When I was in New York, Gotti loved to go to the racetrack – Yonkers, Roosevelt, Aqueduct and Belmont. Mr. Rooney (Timothy Rooney, whose family owned Yonkers) gave us his personal box. John loved to gamble. But we never did business together. The FBI sent a letter to the New York board and said I was never the subject of any investigation or any wrongdoing.”
(Note: Original version of this story referred to Art Rooney as head of Yonkers raceway. Timothy Rooney operated the track for the Rooney family.)