Florida: The New Twilight Zone

by | 07.01.2013 | 8:54am

“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.

For example:

—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.)

  • Richard C

    And is there any wonder why this sport is such a mess?

  • Nucky Thompson

    I for one will be joining the new association. Mr Vaccarezza made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

  • Andy

    “Forget it Jake, it’s Florida.”

  • Sounds like there are enough retired people in Florida now to make Alzheimers catching. And racing is in the looney bin.

  • Rocket Scientist

    Could the 150 yrd race be an attempt to keep the quarter horse license alive? If you assume that Dunbar has an inside track to the writing of pari-mutuel laws (ps – he may just write them himself, but that is just a guess ;) ), does he know something others don’t? Like the removal of all old licenses that havent been used since 2012?

    Machiavelli knows.

    pps – CDSN is gettig what they deserve. They bullied the entire industry throughout the entire country for too long. They only care about the KY derby, and slots. The day to day of racing is a hassle to them.

  • Bob C

    I think the 100 yard race will be a precursor to Gulfstream’s request for a Quarter horse meeting so they can put Hialeah completely out of business. That’s what they have always wanted—to eliminate Hialeah and Calder so they can have the whole pie for themselves. Repeat after me, “what’s good for Gulfstream is good for Florida racing”. Now again, “what’s good for Gulfstream is good for Florida racing”. Keep repeating until you actually believe it.

    • CJP

      Again this genius speculates incorrectly. The race was for thoroughbreds. Any license activated as a result would include the thoroughbred horsemen, thus allowing funds from any gaming expansion to continue to fund purses…..but yes, it was a short race, surely Stronach is plotting a Quarter Horse coup. Ridiculous.

  • Anne

    I still have my horses at Calder; Im not going to make a move until I know for sure what is going on. I have horses in Ocala that need to go to the track; I just dont know which one to go to. Seems to me, if Calder is “trying” to fill their cards, yet are telling horsemen that if they move their horses to Gulfstream, they can never come back to Calder….what does that tell you? That perhaps Calder/CDI would love to lose live racing and the expense of keeping a backside? Otherwise why would they purposely try and get rid of horses…the actual horses that put on their show. Right now GP and CD are playing “good cop bad cop”.

  • Kingturf

    Living in Florida and having a true love for horseracing is making one thing clear. We had a mess down here in the early 90’s over dates and whether or not to allow full card simulcasting. Today, I only play Gulfstream during the winter months. Most of my wagers is on NYRA, Keeneland and S. Cal. I am not going to waste my money on a track where 4-5 shots wins 70% of the time and that’s all one could expect from summer meet at Gulfstream Park. I am just waiting to get screwed by twinspires or xpressbet because I know they’re about to do something dumb like blocking FL residence from wagering on tracks.

  • Arlene

    I find this interesting in light of Federal approval to begin opening horse slaughterhouses. Non-stop racing dates will necessitate non-stop breeding and non-stop disposal. The national quarter horse association is pro slaughter, so it makes sense to look for new venues for breeders. The alleged Mafia connection is interesting. There was a story circulating last week that investigators found a link from a former horse slaughter operation to a drug money laundering operation. Also, a lot of people are questioning where the “poor” guy in New Mexico got millions of dollars to retrofit his former cattle slaughterhouse for equine use. I don’t think there’s any confusion in Florida — I think it’s being carefully orchestrated by an entity that has its fingers in many pies.

  • bugweed

    I understand that the CHRB, the CTBA, and The Bay Meadows Land Company have offered Florida their complete and unqualified support and consulting services to make Florida as least as successful as Cal racing, as it rushes forth into the 21st century.

  • Bryan Langlois (ShelterDoc)

    If you think back a number of years to when Stronach first really got into the game of race track ownership…this is kind of what he wanted all along. No regulation and basically tracks competing with each other in a survival of the fittest kind of thing….where only the strongest tracks survive. A complete free market system. Will be interesting to see what comes of it all

  • Jay

    California and Florida, next door neighbors.

  • Guy Fleegman1

    And horse racing continues to implode from within….is anyone surprised?

  • betterthannothing

    Talking about that 100-yard dash for Thoroughbreds with pari-mutuel… And betting on greyhounds, trotters, quarter horses, barrel horses… What’s next? Two year olds for sale. That’s what!

    The OBS should jump into that messy smorgasbord and grab its slice of the pari-mutuel pie. It is already timing two year olds with great precision, posting crazy times like race results, the babies are already muscled-up, medicated, wearing blinkers, feeling the whip and pushed to run at extreme quarter horse speed, so why not kill two birds with one stone, secure a pari-mutuel license and breeze two year olds in bunches a couple of times? Speed is being sold, so why not the competitive spirit? (only joking)

  • Mike H

    I honestly don’t understand the “implosion” and doom and gloom comments. It seems the worst thing that could happen to racing in Florida, and across North America, is to maintain the status quo. Giving horsemen more options to run for more money – where’s the problem there?

  • This is good news for smart horseplayers as Gulfstream has lower takeout than NY Racing and Calder!

  • Stanley inman

    Florida racing
    The power of internalized oppression
    And colonized minds

  • Jay Stone

    The twilight Zone my be a More normal place than the meeting I attended by some Florida horseman who were interested Iin starting their own group because they don’t feel the hbpa as presently constituted represents them. First and most importantly you can’t have a sane meeting between one group that has present power and another that wants to wrest that power away. It quickly got out of confront with very little accomplished. Multiple groups of horsemen seeking control of year round racing will never work. The present Hbpa while honest and hard working is working with outdated by laws and is overmatched. The groups that want to take over are unorganized presently and don’t know all the by laws. The hbpa board needs to put some northern horsemen who wlll now be racing here year round and some Latino horsemen who represent a large segment of the horsemen on the board as at large board members and try to get things done in a badly disintegrating situation

    • FloridaHorsemen

      Jay–sounds like you are extremely knowledgeable, well-informed and have been keeping close track of the issues with phony racing, modeled on the recently outlawed Gretna “pari-mutuel barrel racing,” and now “100-yard Flag Drop Racing,” phony “rent-a-horse” racing, and even worse. Across Florida, permitholders and tracks affiliated with Gretna (of which outnumber those that aren’t now) have quickly learned our regulators are letting them get away with holding ONE “race” with a minimal amount of horses (usually 2 or 3, just to skirt the law) for the purpose of meeting their “requirements” for cardrooms and slots. This is a very far cry from a normal, well-promoted and advertised race meet that infuses our economy and keeps our businesses and stables running with solid purses. These two-horse, one-race “meets” have a TRACK-OWNED association as their “authorizing horsemen.” And “track-owned” means just that: The track owns you: the horsemen. Once you’re in the trap, they’ll tell you how and when to win, and how much you will get paid, and what other associations you can and can’t join, and of course, they want to take away your federal veto power over simulcasting . So, we’re stepping very carefully these days around the land mines laid by some very clever lawyers and those who aren’t paying attention can unwittingly fall into these traps. Yes, we may be overmatched, but we aren’t lacking in staying power and our love for the game. Bring us your ideas and as many northern horsemen and Latinos as you can round up (our Board is diverse, but we are always looking for new candidates).

      • I do not doubt what you say. But please explain how these associations have such power over those who race. Perhaps the TB industry could use their expertise, since main stream racing cannot even enforce penalties for cheating.

        • FloridaHorsemen

          The problem you allude to such as lack of enforcement of penalties lies not with the industry itself, but the lack of oversight by individual state regulatory agencies and their respective governors/administrations. All the industry can do is make a collective recommendation to elected officials and individual track ownership (as we do), all of which or whom usually have individual agendas. As an industry, we must be more responsible voters ourselves to ensure our elected officials know that horsemen are part of our community and that proper oversight of our industry is imperative. Unfortunately, they don’t read the Paulick Report, so they don’t realize what havoc total deregulation can, and is playing with our industry. Folks who aren’t racing fans have no idea why that’s a problem, either–and that’s another area we need to work on. There’s no doubt that tracks have plenty of excellent advice for horsemen, and vice versa, but better to keep it as just that: advice, and not marching orders. Insofar as tracks having total authority and control over slot revenue, purses and simulcasting–we’ve seen time and time again that just doesn’t work and leads to situations like Gretna (and all the related others) that have eliminated all but two or so horses and riders, who are essentially track employees and do what they’re told, when they’re told to do it. Not only does it destroy any integrity in the wagering process, but effective immediately, gone are all the 2,500 horses or so that would come to a normal race meet, all the jobs and businesses they create and all the breeding industry that goes along to support that (and their respective jobs and businesses). It’s a dirty, shameful scheme to eliminate horse racing altogether. For more information, please see our blog at http://www.FloridaHorsemen.com and check out the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978

  • Jay Stone

    Once again I will never question the honesty, effort, or sincerity of the Hbpa board. But I once again question lack of communication, skills, and overall representation. The rules and by laws are outdated. In simple horsemen’s terms the group never notified their members about things such as movement of foal papers and claiming rules between the two tracks. Gulf put the info on the overnight because a few horsemen had Tim do it. Finally I at least have the nerve to put my name on what I write

    • Stanley inman

      Keep battling
      My friend
      The’re in retreat

  • Rocket Scientist

    They don’t want to race 1/4 horses. They want the license for additional slots, then get the license decoupled from the requirement to run the horses. Look at the big picture people.

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