GRETNA, Fla. -- After Dixie Wonder Bugs circled three barrels and crossed the finish line a half second ahead of Jack's Eliminator on Thursday, Brenda Wolfran jumped up off the metal bleachers with her ticket and headed to the betting window.
"I'm going to be rich!" said Wolfran, 63, of Kinard, with more than a hint of exaggeration. She'd put $10 down on the horse and rider Dallas Dewees. The bet paid $15. As she walked back to the bleachers, she yelled to her friends, "I can't carry it all!"
It was the first race in what's believed to be the only place in the country where people can bet on barrel racing.
The owners, Gretna Racing, say it's a legitimate pari-mutuel event that will provide entertainment and jobs in this poor, rural Panhandle community. Opponents who breed and race quarter horses on traditional race tracks say it's a scam -- an exploitation of a loophole that will allow the business to open a poker room and, if voters approve, possibly add slot machines.
"We're racing," said James Dorris, president of facility operators PCI Gaming Authority, as he sat among a little more than 50 people in the bleachers. "We're very confident we're moving ahead."
While the operation is up and running, the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association and Florida Quarter Horse Breeders & Owners Association are still challenging the state permit that allows pari-mutuel betting on the events. They say quarter horse racing is intended for tracks, not for riding cloverleaf patterns around three barrels in an arena. An appeals court on Thursday told the arena's owners and state regulators to explain why it shouldn't shut down the associations' request to shut down the operation until the challenge can be reviewed. They have to respond by next Tuesday.
"Barrel competition is not horse racing," said Dr. Steve Fisch, a veterinarian who is president of both associations. "I'm disappointed for Florida. I'm disappointed for Gretna. Gretna and Gadsden County stood to gain the most with a true horse track over there."
Beyond what should and shouldn't be considered racing, Fisch points at the difference in jobs in operating barrel racing and traditional quarter horse racing. In Gretna, eight riders and horses went head-to-head in a bracketed, double elimination round off betting to eventually determine an overall winner. In all, 11 races were held. The winner and second place riders completed four races on the same horse. In flat track racing, horses run one race and are done for the next two weeks. There are more horses per race.
For example, the track in Hialeah is preparing to open and will have 1,000 or so horses in its stables, Fisch said. There are tent-covered stables horse owners and riders can use, but they take their horses home with them after a weekend of competition is over.
"There's your difference right there," said Fisch. "The economic impact of competing eight horses compared to 1,000."
Dorris acknowledges that the barrel racing will not be the big money maker at the facility if plans go the way he sees them. The poker room will be more lucrative and slot machines will be even more so. And yes, the barrel racing is the ticket to the other two forms of gambling, but Dorris said they are serious about running a quality product. He also said it is a source of entertainment that will draw people, much like concerts do at casinos.
"The charges that we're trying to bypass one thing to get another are pretty ridiculous," Dorris said, adding that they are following state laws and regulations.
Barrel racing is usually a women's rodeo event. This type of racing is unique in that bets are made. The Georgia-based National Barrel Horse Association says it knows of no other place in the country where pari-mutuel gambling is allowed on barrel racing. Dorris has not been able to say for certain it's done elsewhere and Fisch said he's tried to find an example of it in another state and can't.
"It is not done anywhere else in the country," Fisch said. "If you're talking about this minute, there is not pari-mutuel barrel racing going on."
It made for some confusing moments at the betting booth for both customer and clerks at the windows. No, you can't bet a trifecta on a race, because there're only two riders, but you can on the overall performance. Is that a win bet on the race or the performance? Is the pick four for the overall performance or the first four races?
"I'll give it a try if I can figure it out," said Joe O'Brien, 60, of Havana, who has bet traditional horse racing and other pari-mutuels. He also wasn't concerned about the complaints that it wasn't real racing. "To me it's just another type of horse racing. It's running in a circle versus running around barrels."
Also a little confusing was not having past performances on which to judge the riders and horses while trying to pick a winner.
"I just picked what looked like the best one coming around," O'Brien said after the horses were paraded in front of the sparse crowd before Race 1. "It's random at this point since it's the first race."