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Hamilton Downs Horsetrack, LLC v. State, Department of Business and Professional Regulation

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

September 5, 2017



         An appeal from a Final Order of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.

          Seann M. Frazier and Marc Ito of Parker, Hudson, Rainer & Dobbs, LLP, Tallahassee, for Appellant.

          Jason L. Maine, General Counsel, Dwight O. Slater, Chief Appellate Counsel, and Chevonne T. Christian, Assistant General Counsel, Tallahassee, for Appellee.

          JAY, J.

         Hamilton Downs Horsetrack, LLC ("Hamilton Downs"), appeals a final order by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering ("the Division"), rejecting certain factual findings and legal conclusions made by an administrative law judge ("the ALJ") following a formal hearing. Because the ALJ properly concluded that a violation did not occur as alleged in the administrative complaint, and because the Division should be estopped from prosecuting Hamilton Downs even if it did, we reverse.


         Hamilton Downs is a relatively new horse racing establishment located in rural Hamilton County, just south of the Florida-Georgia line. Glenn Richards is owner and managing member of Hamilton Downs. Richards has ambitious plans to turn Hamilton Downs into a first-class pari-mutuel facility complete with a cardroom, slot machines, an oval race track, starting gates, and grandstands. For now, however, Hamilton Downs exists as an L-shaped dirt track approximately 110 yards in length, in an open field, with a shed for betting, a covered box on stilts, and a barn.

         Hamilton Downs holds a pari-mutuel permit to conduct quarter horse races. On March 15, 2013, the Division issued an Operating Day License ("the operating license"), authorizing Hamilton Downs to conduct quarter horse barrel match racing as in years past. The operating license set forth Hamilton Downs' 2014 racing schedule, which consisted of twenty quarter horse performances over a four-day period in mid-June, at a rate of four performances per day, with each performance consisting of eight individual races, for a total of 160 races.

          Approximately six months before the 2014 meet was set to occur, the rule authorizing barrel match racing was declared invalid as an unadopted rule. See Fla. Quarter Horse Track Ass'n v. Dep't of Bus. & Prof'l Reg., 133 So.3d 1118 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014). The Division advised Richards that Hamilton Downs would not be permitted to conduct barrel match racing as in years past, but that it could conduct "flag-drop" racing instead. According to Richards, he asked for information on the applicable rules, but the Division advised him there were no rules governing flag-drop racing.

         Three weeks before the 2014 meet was scheduled to occur, a second unforeseen circumstance arose. The organization on which Hamilton Downs relied for its horses and riders pulled out of the event. Resolving that the show must go on, Richards made alternative arrangements. He rounded up college students for riders and an elderly herd of untrained horses as their racing steeds. The 2014 meet went off on schedule. Each race consisted of two horses. The ALJ described this scene very well:

22. The races must be seen to be believed. The 14 events for which video evidence was received show a series of races involving -- as a rule -- tired, reluctant, skittish, or disinterested horses moving at a slow pace down the dust-choked path. There was no marked starting line or finish line. The horses were often yards apart when [a] red rag-on-a-stick was waved [starting the race]. With one exception (performance 2, race 7), the gait of the "racing" horses ranged between a slow walk and a canter. Horses often simply stood at the starting line before slowly plodding down the track. In one instance, a horse actually backed up, until a bystander took it by the lead, thereafter giving the horse a congratulatory slap on the rump when it began to move in a forward direction. [Louis] Haskell noted races in which riders fell off of their horses, or in which a horse left the course. He described numerous races, aptly, as noncompetitive because one or both of the entrants walked, including one race (day 3, card 3, race 5) in which the racing steed took 1 minute and 45 seconds to cover the 110-yard course. The overall quality of the videotaped races was about what one would expect of an entry-level campers' horse show held at the conclusion of a two-week YMCA summer camp.

         The second race of the meet was a matchup between two horses owned by the same owner, Amie Peacock. This is what is known as a coupled entry. Where there is a coupled entry in a two-horse race, there can be no meaningful betting because a coupled entry is "considered a single betting interest for purposes of wagering." Fla. Admin. Code R. 61D-7.001(12). A bet placed on one horse is necessarily a bet placed on both horses, so every betting patron wins.

         After this race occurred, a thirty-minute meeting was held between Richards and race officials to discuss how the race should be treated. Among those present was Charles Taylor-an investigative specialist for the Division-whose job it was to verify compliance with all rules and statutes at racing events. Also present was Louis Haskell, who, at the time, was a state steward for the Division. As a state steward, Haskell supervised compliance ...

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