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Horse racing’s dragsters flock to Florida

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Florida has a great racing tradition. Whether it be the historic high banks of the Daytona International Speedway, the dragstrip at Gainesville Raceway, the dirt oval at East Bay Raceway, or even the horse track at Pompano Park, generations of individuals in the pursuit of speed have often flocked to our great state in order to try and find it. 2014 is no exception, as the greatest racers in all the world start their season in the sunshine state.

As this column has demonstrated in recent months, racing isn't always about cars, or boats, or even airplanes. When we discuss horsepower, we must also realize that the term originates from the truest form of racing; horse racing.

Gambling is, it seems, what makes the economies of formerly struggling states go around. Horse racing is, at it's purest form, a parimutuel event. It allows you to not only enjoy the thrill of speed, the excitement of the track, but also the ability to make a few bucks to boot! Here in South Florida, we are lucky to have a few great facilities still out there that celebrate the sport of kings, and allow normal people to come out and see the true power that is modern horse racing.

Fans can travel to Pompano to witness the open wheeled action of harness racing, or travel a bit further south to the monumental, storied, nearly a century old and steeped in old-guard tradition facility known as Hialeah Park. For a seasoned set of executives who have targeted Florida as ripe for expanding the high-octane world of American Quarter Horse Racing, that goal is well in range now that their business at Hialeah Park is booming.

These days, if you want to find the money crowd at Hialeah, look for the cowboy hats and Western belt buckles—attire favored by not only the Midwestern and North Florida executives drawn to Florida’s resurging Quarter Horse racing scene, but also by their Hispanic counterparts who fervently share their passion. So zealous are the fans, they mirror the racehorses’ explosive, blinding dashes down the Hialeah homestretch—dramatically different than their Thoroughbred counterparts—which are long-distance runners more comparable to NASCAR.

Accredited American Quarter Horse racing at Hialeah Park draws a markedly active, diverse and highly engaged crowd infused with new energy and enthusiasm, thanks to the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association (FQHRA)—the Florida arm of the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), an international organization of nearly 350,000 members in 14 different countries.

Like a more potent version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, the AQHA sets the standardized rules of accredited Quarter Horse racing to ensure product integrity for the wagering public, and safety for the participating animals and horsemen. So stringent and exacting are the AQHA standards, Florida law defers to its collective years of experience to oversee statewide regulation through the FQHRA’s statutory work. Both organizations are trusted by industry investors to ensure a proper environment in which to do business.

“The fact that we would jump on an airplane just to attend an FQHRA Board meeting says a whole lot about what we think the potential is for Florida’s AQHA-accredited Quarter Horse racing market,” explained Ben Hudson, the 40-year publisher of Quarter Horse Track Magazine—one of the sport’s foremost publications. Hudson is one of the newest members of the FQHRA Board--a collection of horsemen from around the United States who have seen a thing or two in their lifetime.

After watching the FQHRA’s growth and carefully evaluating Florida’s market potential, Gary Walker, an AQHA trainer and former racetrack executive with college professor credentials, joined Hudson among the new Board recruits this year, along with veteran horseman Butch Wise, who has managed the Lazy E Ranch--one of the nation's largest, most successful racehorse breeding operations--for over 20 years.

The youngest member of the FQHRA Board, Walker sometimes gets morose when politics get too thick. Whether it’s a Tallahassee legislative brawl, a litigation fiasco or an argument among fellow horsemen, dealing with the figurative mano-a-mano that horse racing law and regulation tends to spawn all boils down to less time that he and his colleagues can spend on growing their business.

f there’s one thing he wants Florida lawmakers to know about accredited Quarter Horse Racing, is that the industry goes far beyond the visual surface of the horses at the racetrack. It extends to the breeding farm and ancillary enterprises that service and benefit from a typical race meet, including tourism, transportation and real estate.

“We’re not a bunch of weekend warriors,” Walker emphasizes. “Florida legislators should realize we are running big businesses.”

The problem in educating lawmakers about the horse racing industry lies in the very infrastructure and daily routines of its myriad businesses. By 5 a.m., seven days a week, most horsemen are already at work and finishing their most intense training hours by the time most office workers are just pulling into their downtown parking spaces.

“The problem with the horse industry is that we’re invisible because we’re often dispersed throughout the state, and in rural locations,” explained Butch Wise. “Unlike Disney World, you can’t just drive in and count the number of cars in the employee parking lot. In a typical racetrack barn area, there are hundreds of people working there, but you don’t all see them in the same place all day long.”

Wise points to a 2012 Oklahoma study that found accredited Quarter Horse racing has a $3.2 billion dollar annual statewide economic impact there. Last year, his own Oklahoma farm saw traffic of more than 2,600 horses, 1,200 mares of which were also bred on the premises, and others that even originated overseas. Together, they ate more than 800 tons of hay during the same time period, among the many other expenses and staffing required to run the operation.

“That’s the kind of business that can be developed in Florida,” Walker says.

And the demand for accredited racing Quarter Horse “dragsters” is international in scope. The AQHA advantage? More modern rules that include artificial insemination allow stallions’ semen to be shipped anywhere, while enabling breeders to still qualify to bring their horses to participate in lucrative racing program bonuses like Florida’s. For state economies, it’s literally a seed that keeps on growing.

“Our elected officials need to know that anything to do with horses takes years. It’s like trying to turn the Queen Mary on a dime,” Wise explained. “But the hurdles are being eroded and we’ve already established high class racing in Florida. People are noticing and starting to participate.”

Not surprisingly, the FQHRA Board and its membership have a business plan to develop the industry statewide.

“An accredited Florida-bred stands for quality,” says Dr. Steve Fisch, the FQHRA President. “Our horsemen are already getting the best mares and stallions in the country to compete in a forward-thinking Florida program designed to grow Florida business.”

“Florida is the ‘new’ old frontier,” Walker says. “I feel like this is the place of the future, especially for young guys like myself trying to make it in this world.”

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