A day of racing at Oxford Downs near The Villages retirement community in South Marion County in Florida would be funny if it weren't so sad. But sad, indeed, is the state of pari-mutuel regulations in Florida under Gov. Rick Scott and his director of the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, Leon Biegalski. Slick lawyers and opportunists are making a sham and a mockery of the rules that regulate horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering along with the sport itself.
It's not just at Oxford Downs, but this dumpy, dusty outpost in Summerfield, Fla., is where I found myself on Tuesday, July 1, the first day of Florida's 2014-15 fiscal year. It was opening day of a 10-day “season” designed to qualify Oxford Downs owner Anthony Mendola for permits to operate a year-round card room and simulcasting on Thoroughbreds. Two “performances,” each consisting of eight individual Quarter horse “match races,” were conducted on this 95-degree afternoon under a blazing summer Florida sun. Horses were required to be saddled up twice and go out onto the track and compete, so to speak. The same schedule is planned for the next nine days.
There was pari-mutuel wagering – usually about $40 was bet on each race – through a United Tote machine set up in a cricket-filled portable shed. There was a starting gate, located about 110 yards from a finish line on a straightaway portion of the oval-shaped track, lined on each side by wooden plank fencing that has drawn the ire of the Jockeys' Guild and its national manager, Terry Meyocks. The track itself is undulating with sharp turns, no banking, and no safety rails.
There were Quarter horses – apparently registered with the American Quarter Horse Association, which is not officially sanctioning the Oxford Downs activity and has written a letter to Marion County Commissioners saying allowing the track to operate sets a “dangerous precedent.” Three stewards, including track owner Mendola and his teenaged son, Joshua, oversaw the proceedings.
An official track program listed eight horses competing in Races 1-8, and names of owners, trainers, and jockeys for each were alongside. The program had no past performance or pedigree information of any kind on the horses. There was no indication if the horses were racing for purse money, and no conditions of the races were published. There was no condition book in a traditional sense, for horsemen to use as a road map to entering their horses.
There was a smattering of people in attendance, perhaps a dozen who weren't working for Oxford Downs or for the state of Florida's Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. There were no bathroom facilities nearby, no running or bottled water or refreshments. An ambulance and local sheriff were on hand in case of emergencies.
Everything, I was assured by owner Mendola, was in full compliance with state and local regulations.
That goes for a required “clubhouse,” a construction trailer located a couple hundred yards from the track. “You can go in there and cool off,” Mendola told me. When I did, however, Mendola sent Edward Schwartz, the track's director of security, to run up the hill to the clubhouse and chase me out.
“You can't be in here,” Schwartz told me. I repeated to him what Mendola had told me not five minutes earlier. “You can't be in here,” he said.
Schwartz was one of the only “racing officials” whose last name wasn't Mendola or Oliver.
Anthony Mendola is the manager and 100 percent owner of Central Florida Gaming, which owns South Marion Real Estate Holdings. Mendola said he bought the permit from the late Bernard Goldstein, founder of Isle of Capri Casinos. He also filed the articles of incorporation for a group called Central Florida Horsemen's Association, which, according to the papers, is to “represent the rights of its members in negotiations with the management of (Oxford Downs) involving purse and other payments to horsemen; off-track wagering, simulcasting and other television rights compensation agreements; and other contracts with (Oxford Downs) involving the financial, business, legal and personal interests of its members.”
So Mendola owns the track and he also incorporated the horsemen's association. Isn't that convenient?
Mendola's multiple roles include that of a steward, supervising the races (alongside his teenaged son, Joshua, who has apparently been accredited by the state), a majority of which involve horses owned by Rebecca Mendola, who is Anthony Mendola's wife and Joshua Mendola's mother. She was listed as owner of six of 16 horses competing on Tuesday. Other horses that performed were owned by Elizabeth McLain and trained by Janet Erwin, both of whom the Paulick Report was told were blood relatives of track veterinarian Cara Oliver, who is married to director of racing Terry Oliver.
So we have a teenaged son and husband as stewards judging races owned by the teen's mother and track owner's wife. There is a track veterinarian, who is to determine whether horses are sound enough to compete, judging the soundness of her direct family's horses. It is a situation so convoluted that I can only repeat what the Woody Allen character, Fielding Mellish, said in the movie “Bananas” about a courtroom trial: “It's a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.”
United Florida Horsemen, representing Florida owners and breeders, wrote a letter to Biegalski at the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, referring to the whole affair as a make-believe Potemkin Village and outlining the numerous legal and regulatory problems they see with Oxford Downs and similar businesses. Two officials with the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co., president Tom Ventura and director of sales Tod Wojciechowski, also oppose the permit and were on hand to witness the July 1 performances.
Of course, sham racing wasn't invented at Oxford Downs. We first learned of attorneys and opportunists gaming the system with Quarter Horse barrel racing in Gretna, in the state's panhandle. A ruling shot down barrel racing as a legitimate form of horse racing, so “flag drop” events replaced the barrel runners. Hamilton Downs, affiliated with a jai-alai business and card room in Jasper near the state line just south of Valdosta, Ga., allegedly ran a race meeting with horses barely going faster than a jog.
It is disgraceful and shameful that Scott and Biegalski allow this charade to continue.
But even legitimate pari-mutuel operators, like Peter Berube, the general manager of Tampa Bay Downs, have gotten into the act of finding and exploiting legal loopholes. Tampa Bay Downs ran a two-day summer festival – albeit with real horses, real jockeys and trainers, and real fans betting $2.8 million over two days – on June 30 and July 1, the closing and opening days of separate fiscal years. By doing so, Tampa Bay Downs claims to run year-round and qualifies as a simulcast host 12 months a year. Host status, selling imported simulcast signals to dog tracks and jai-alai frontons throughout the state, adds money to the bottom line. Berube estimates it provided $20,000 a day to daily overnight purses during the 2013-14 race meeting.
“You have to be creative in this day and age,” Berube said.
No kidding. And people like Anthony Mendola are taking creativity to a whole new level.
The really sad thing is they are probably going to get away with it.
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