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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. It's grown in popularity in recent years and has its own circuit of races. Now, some businessmen in Florida have received state permission to turn barrel racing into a betting proposition. As NPR's Greg Allen reports, quarter horse breeders and trainers are suing to stop it.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It's race day at a new barrel racing facility in Gretna, near Tallahassee in Florida's panhandle.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the horses are leaving the paddock, making their way to...
ALLEN: Two barrel racers walk their horses to the gates of adjoining pens. Starting lights flash from red to green and they're off.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Racing, good level start, clean start by both as they charge into that first barrel...
ALLEN: It's over in 17 seconds. There has been betting on barrel racing 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.
There are just eight horses running this afternoon - two at a time - in a series of head to head match ups. That's many fewer than at typical barrel races, where sometimes hundreds of horses compete in a single day, one after the other, racing the clock.
Marc Dunbar says it's still a work in progress, part of an effort to bring new customers to horse racing. Dunbar is an attorney who's long worked in Florida's horse racing industry. Interest in horse racing has stagnated in recent years he says, while barrel racing has really taken off.
MARC DUNBAR: 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. And the other thing, it's popular for a very good demographic. I mean, it is one of the fastest growing women's sports that's out there.
ALLEN: 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 were at the windows placing bets. Andrea Cline, a barrel racer who moved here from Texas, says she thinks interest will pick up.
ANDREA CLINE: It's definitely growing. At first, it was a little bit of a trickle. And 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.
ALLEN: Among many Florida horsemen, however, the reaction has been harsh. The National Barrel Horse Association is against it. So is the American Quarter Horse Association.
Barrel racing is just part of what's planned at the Gretna casino. There's already a poker room. And next year, the owners hope to win permission for slot machines. In order to run the casino, though, under the terms of its license, the Gretna operation must also hold quarter horse races.
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, fit the bill. 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.
STEVE FISCH: They're going to describe horses coming out of a starting gate. Many of them will say, well, it's like the Kentucky Derby, something like that. I don't think any of them will say, I imagine horses going in a cloverleaf pattern around barrels. Nothing saying anything's wrong with that, that's a great sport. But it's not horse racing.
ALLEN: 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 mad because he's made a deal not with them, but with the barrel racers.
DUNBAR: Monopolies are frowned upon. And, they would like to be able to dictate everything that happens in the industry. 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.
ALLEN: 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 Stirling represents thoroughbred owners and trainers. He says 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. Compare that, Stirling says, with the 30 or 40 horses competing in the barrel races. Stirling worries if the Gretna casino succeeds, other race track owners will look to exploit their own loopholes in state racing laws.
KENT STIRLING: It's a get rich quick scheme, is what it is. But it could destroy one of the largest industries in the state of Florida, the racing industry. Which we employ some 52,000 people. For 34 horses, they can't employ too many people.
ALLEN: 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.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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