Please provide a valid email address.


Photo courtesy Julie June Stewart

The Kentucky Derby, the Florida Derby, the Arkansas Derby...

The Georgia Derby?

There is nothing illegal about racing horses in the state of Georgia.  It is the pari-mutuel wagering - the greatest commerce to fund the sport - that is illegal. Pari-mutuel betting pools all wagers together and the winners split the overall prize. Whether or not to legalize this form of betting is incumbent on each individual state. Georgia is one of six U.S. states that does not offer legal pari-mutuel wagering, thus making it impossible for horse racing to exist as a viable industry in this state.

Interstate pari-mutuel betting is regulated by the Federal Government. The Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978 allows pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing across state lines. One may place bets via the internet or phone, etc., but only as long as pari-mutuel horse race wagering is legal in both states.

Seventy-two percent of people surveyed in Georgia want pari-mutuel wagering for horse racing placed on a referendum, sparking the need to study this issue. Georgia Senator Mullis (R) said, “On controversial issues, people want to have their voices heard.  I believe in a representative form of government.  Some issues need to be in the public’s direct view.”

There are forces working to bring Georgia on to the national stage of the horse racing industry. On December 20, a dedicated group of people weathered a foreboding storm and gathered at the state capitol in Atlanta. They participated in a Senatorial committee hearing to have their voices heard on a proposal to legalize pari-mutuel wagering in the state of Georgia. For two hours, citizens from each side of the debate took turns presenting their arguments to the Senatorial Study Committee formed to decide whether horse racing is feasible for Georgia. 

Hal Barry is determined to properly establish horse racing in Georgia. One year ago, he formed the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition with this goal in mind. More than 200 people have joined Barry since then, supporting the legislation and working hard to see their vision become a reality. The coalition’s founder also has been speaking with Craig Fravel of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships about Atlanta’s chances to become a revolving host site. 

Barry addressed the committee’s concerns of struggling racing markets in other states by highlighting the potential benefits unique to the city of Atlanta.

“Value depends a lot on location, on specifics characteristic of project and timing. Atlanta is one place that horse racing can profit [from] world class-type racing. There is no better time. We need jobs, and tourism needs help. The farmers need help and that’s what we bring to the table.”


040031112_dirtmilel 02bunnyinsidePhoto courtesy Eclipse Sportswire

Joining Barry’s effort is Doug Dillard, an attorney representing the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition. He emphasized the legislation would have restrictive language only allowing pari-mutuel wagering for horse racing that specifically excludes gaming without casino gambling.  Dillard felt the legislation would present a viable economic opportunity for Georgia.

“If you look at the overall impact in the economic sect both from the standpoint of jobs and sales tax revenue, it’s a win-win for the state. We just want to give the people of Georgia the opportunity to vote on this. We are not trying to usurp the public opinion process, just give the people of Georgia the opportunity to vote on it. It’s a multi-million dollar opportunity they are missing out on.”  

Jack Damico, managing partner for an accounting firm, has owned and bred Thoroughbreds for more than 35 years. Damico jumped on board to support the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition and claimed that Thoroughbred racing in Georgia can survive on a stand-alone basis without casinos. He produced a financial summary examining a proposed Georgia racetrack. While simulcast racing would occur all year, the track would offer a 40-day live “boutique racing” schedule split 20 days each between the spring and the fall.  


113120830010_Saratoga _ScenebunnyinsidePhoto courtesy Eclipse Sportswire

Georgia residents Dean and Patti Reeves of Reeves Thoroughbred Racing share this vision of a first-class racing operation. They imagine an entertainment complex that could host events throughout the year.  But, explains Dean Reeves, “our 20 days of racing in the fall and in the spring to be the same type of events that people look forward to like the Masters, the Super Bowl, the Final Four and the type of events that come to Atlanta.” 

“A day at the track is a family event,” Patti Reeves added about the atmosphere of a race day. “An all-day event the whole family can attend, which can include picnics, shopping, having lunch, concerts, dinner.”


Reeves _Bun _Hearing

The Reeves own ten horses currently in training; most notably Grade 1 winner and 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) runner-up Mucho Macho Man. They recalled their experiences as a part of the racing industry, testifying to the high quality care bestowed upon equine athletes. They addressed the important issue of the Thoroughbred’s post-race career, explaining the serious responsibility of placing their ex-runners in good homes with appropriate lifestyles.


Mucho -Macho -ManbunnyinsidePhoto courtesy Tom Ferry

Senator Ligon (R) challenged the Reeves with concerns about possible negative consequences of horse racing. He confronted them with the scenario of  “the families of the person who goes to the track, who loses all his wages at the track, then he goes home and has two, three, or four children there who need that money, who could use that money for clothes, school supplies and other things. I don’t see that as being family-friendly.” 

Reeves explained how the track would offer help to individuals with gambling addictions. In response, the senator added that major sports like football do not have betting windows at their venues, and major events are not promoted as gambling events “to people who do not have the money to gamble.” 

Dean Reeves passionately disagreed. 

“They could make a $2 bet. It’s like Sunday [alcohol] sales. People that were having an issue drinking had that issue before you started selling liquor on Sunday. I think to say a gambler, because he comes to the track, has the opportunity to bet $2. He doesn’t have to bet his paycheck. It becomes more of a situation with the individual, rather than the horse track.” 

The influential religious culture of the state’s population is no doubt taken seriously by elected officials. The Georgia Baptist Convention, 3,598 churches and 1.4 million members strong, were represented by Ray Newman, who began by stating that a dozen and a half unanimous resolutions in opposition to expanding gambling of any type in Georgia have been passed at their annual meeting. 

“The concern is that gambling will be an open door for casinos. Our concern is for the citizens who will be attracted to the racetrack who can least afford the experience. We are concerned that by having expanded gambling in our state, it will turn our state even more so into a predator as it will be in a position that it will entice people to go to the track and bet money for the chance they might strike it rich. We know there are more losers than winners.” 

Newman’s statements were echoed by Judy Craft, chair of First Redeemer Church in Forsyth, Ga. She summed it up by emphasizing “entertainment for some, but addiction and moral societal ills that government eventually pays for. This is a costly, big government venture that looks and sounds glamorous, but closer inspection reveals too many risks and costs.”


100120804_eclipse _000739bunnyinside

Photo courtesy Eclipse Sportswire

The dialog on morality continued with equal fervor on the opposite side. “If we are going to do this, we have to do this right and we have to do it right the first time. … I don’t think we can dictate morality,” said Ron Smith, the National Director for the American Quarter Horse Association in Georgia. “Whether you legalize pari-mutuel betting for horse racing in Georgia, they are going to race horses - they going to race them. Our business is going through some times that we are not really proud of, but I can tell you that we are working very hard to clean up our act. Our industry is important to us.”

Among horse racing proponents, the common sentiment is that horse racing happens all around Georgia. It is an unfortunate fact that the state does not benefit from the industry, particularly in these financially difficult times. Kostas Hatzikoutelis, vice president of Dream Team Racing Stables, described the horse racing industry’s operations in the Southeast and how Georgia was excluded from it. 

“One of our horses came through this state six times this year,” Hatzikoutelis said, “never stopping once, not even to refuel the truck with gas.”

Carl Bouckaert of the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition is a Belgian citizen who has lived in Georgia for 35 years. As a lifelong participant in the horse business, he shared his unique insights. 

“Belgium is a quarter the size of Georgia - we had ten racetracks.  It created a lot of jobs for both rural and urban. I see the same opportunity for the state of Georgia in the city of Atlanta.  For us not to have the benefit of those jobs and income of such a business opportunity is a shame. To see horses travel from Kentucky to Florida, and then from Florida to Kentucky, coming through our state and not leaving a penny. Particularly in these difficult times, when revenue is so hard to come by, we need to consider this good business opportunity for a beautiful sport that will not only provide great entertainment, but also will beautify and create opportunities in rural Georgia.”


106100411_Old -Friends 2BUNNY

Photo courtesy Eclipse Sportswire

The Senatorial Committee will take all the information presented to them during the hearing, analyze it, and decide if the issue of legalizing pari-mutuel wagering in Georgia should be put on a referendum for the voters. The legislation could be put on a ballot as early as 2014. If the aforementioned survey truly indicates how Georgian’s will vote on this matter, the state of Georgia could be experiencing world-class horse racing in a few years.  

“It’s exciting that the Senate has taken this subject up with four years’ worth of work into the legislation.  Support came out of the regulated industries committee without a descending vote. We could have passed it in the house but had problems getting it to the floor,” said State Representative Harry Geisinger (R-Roswell).

Click here to see the pre-filed bill to the constitutional amendment and click on the House Representatives:  House Resolution 1 (HR1) and enabling legislation is House Bill 4. There is currently no pending legislation in the Senate regarding horse racing.

To make donations to the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition visit http://gahorseracing.org/

Image Description

Bunny Hinzman

Bunny Hinzman is a journalist for International Racehorse Magazine.  
Her work has appeared in Illinois Racing News Magazine and Keeneland Magazine.  She also authors Bits N' Bunny, covering various aspects of Thoroughbred horse racing.  Bunny's article, "The Lasix Legacy", received a final nomination and Honorable Mention from Team Valor International's 2012 Stanley Bergstein Award.

Image Description

Bunny Hinzman

Bunny Hinzman is a journalist for International Racehorse Magazine.  
Her work has appeared in Illinois Racing News Magazine and Keeneland Magazine.  She also authors Bits N' Bunny, covering various aspects of Thoroughbred horse racing.  Bunny's article, "The Lasix Legacy", received a final nomination and Honorable Mention from Team Valor International's 2012 Stanley Bergstein Award.

Sponsors & Partners

  • FoxSports1
  • Autism Speaks
  • NBC Sports
  • Logo 6
  • Saratoga
  • Santa Anita
  • CBS Sports
  • Monmouth
  • Keeneland
  • Gulfstream Park
  • Del Mar
  • Belmont Park
  • Arlington Park
  • OwnerView