At rodeos, barrel racing has long been a popular event. Riders, often young women, race their horses in a cloverleaf pattern around barrels in an arena. Using quarter horses, the sport has grown in popularity in recent years and has its own circuit of races and competitive riders.
But in Gretna, Fla., a plan to turn barrel racing into a betting proposition has run into opposition. Quarter horse breeders and trainers are suing to stop it, saying the new event could destroy their industry.
On race day at Creek Entertainment Gretna, a new barrel racing facility north of Tallahassee in Florida’s panhandle, two barrel racers walk their horses to the gates of adjoining pens. The starting lights flash from red to green, and they’re off.
The race is over in just 17 seconds.
Barrel racing has been the subject of betting before. But this is believed to be the first facility in the country built to turn barrel racing into a pari-mutuel-style betting sport, where those who back the top three finishers in each race split the pot.
There are just eight horses running this afternoon, two at a time, in a series of head-to-head matchups. That’s many fewer than at typical barrel races, where sometimes hundreds of horses will compete in a single day, one after the other, racing the clock.
Marc Dunbar, an attorney and part owner of Creek Entertainment who has long worked in Florida’s horse racing industry, says this brand of barrel racing is still a work in progress, part of an effort to bring a whole new type of customer to horse racing.
Interest in horse racing has stagnated in recent years, he says, while barrel racing has really taken off.
“When you travel around the country, what you see is, even with the biggest rodeos, they’re actually moving barrel racing to after bull riding — because it’s more popular now,” Dunbar says. “And the other thing is, it’s popular for a very good demographic. It is one of the fastest-growing women’s sports that’s out there.”
So far, enthusiasm for the new Florida barrel races has been muted. On a recent afternoon, only about two dozen people were in the stands, and few people at the windows placing bets.
Andrea Kline, a barrel racer who moved here from Texas, says she thinks interest will pick up.
“It’s definitely growing. At first, it was a little bit of a trickle,” she says. “Now, that trickle is starting to be more of a pour. And pretty soon, it’s going to be a waterfall. It’s going to be huge.”
Among many Florida horsemen, however, the reaction has been positively vitriolic. The National Barrel Horse Association is against the new approach. So is the American Quarter Horse Association and its Florida affiliate.
Barrel racing is just part of what’s planned at the Gretna casino. There’s already a poker room in operation, and next year, the owners hope to win permission for slot machines.
To run the casino, the terms of the Gretna operation’s license also require it to hold live quarter horse racing. The problem is, Florida law doesn’t spell out exactly what that is. Dunbar, who teaches gaming law at Florida State University, believes barrel races using quarter horses fill the bill.
But Steve Fisch, who heads the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association, says that defies common sense. Ask any person what horse racing is, he says, and you’ll get a different answer.
“They’re going to describe horses coming out of a starting gate. Many of them will say, ‘It’s like the Kentucky Derby,’ something like that,” he says. “I don’t think any of them will say, ‘I imagine horses going in a cloverleaf pattern, around barrels.’ Nothing’s saying anything’s wrong with that. It’s a great sport. But it’s not horse racing.”
Fisch says Dunbar and the other owners of the Gretna facility are exploiting a loophole in state law to run a casino without the expense of operating a costly racetrack. His group is challenging Gretna’s racing permit.
Dunbar says the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association is angry because he’s made a deal not with them, but with the barrel racers.
“Monopolies are frowned upon. And [the association] would like to be able to dictate everything that happens in the industry,” he says. “And that’s not what the Legislature created. The Legislature, for each horse racing facility, said the majority of owners and trainers decide what happens there. They have the ability to form their own association, and they decide.”
Gretna is a small facility in an out-of-the way part of the state, but it has the attention of Florida’s $2 billion racing industry.
Kent Sterling, who represents thoroughbred owners and trainers, says that operating a thoroughbred or quarter horse track means spending millions of dollars building stables, a track and training facilities. At a typical track, he says, several hundred horses compete in a season — compared with 30 or 40 horses competing in barrel races.
Sterling worries that if the Gretna casino succeeds, other racetrack owners will look for their own loopholes in the state’s racing laws.
“It’s a get-rich-quick scheme, is what it is,” he says. “But it could destroy one of the largest industries in the state of Florida, the racing industry. We employ some 52,000 people. For 34 horses, they can’t employ too many people.”
Whether barrel racing succeeds as a new type of pari-mutuel wagering in Gretna depends on many things: how many fans it attracts; the outcome of the legal challenge; and the reaction from the state Legislature. It may ultimately be lawmakers who decide what it means to hold a horse race in Florida.