Does decoupling bill indicate sundown in the Sunshine State?

Sundown in the Sunshine State?

April 16, 2021

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Decoupling bill endangers Florida harness racing.

by Melissa Keith

Monday (April 12) marked what could be a turning point for Florida harness racing and that turn isn’t what the state’s standardbred industry wants. A new State Regulated Gaming Control Commission within the Office of the Attorney General was proposed, alongside a bill that would eliminate mandated live racing dates at non-thoroughbred racinos. The Senate Regulated Industries Committee, led by Republican Senator Travis Hutson, submitted a decoupling proposal (SPB 7080). If passed, it would mean only Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs would have ongoing obligations to race. The last pari-mutuel harness track in the state, Isle Casino Pompano Park, would no longer be required to conduct live racing as a condition of offering casino games.

SPB 7080 provides protections for thoroughbreds, while targeting jai-alai, quarter horse racing and harness racing. Republican Senator Ray Rodrigues was quoted in the April 12 Tampa Bay Times as saying that Florida’s quarter horse racing and jai-alai venues “are really just going through the motions” in order to keep lucrative casino gaming. Rodrigues did not make the same observation about Pompano, however, even pointing out that standardbred racing “appears to be legitimate” and asking about why it was not being sheltered from decoupling.

Senator Hutson’s response was also quoted in Mary Ellen Klas’ article in the Tampa Bay Times. The Regulated Industries Committee Chair stated that “Harness permit holders did not have that same vibe as thoroughbreds. They were kind of 50/50 on whether they wanted to be decoupled or not.” He added that standardbred racing could continue in the state, even if SPB 7080 is passed.

But to anyone who knows harness racing, Hutson’s words seem disingenuous. Without being coupled with casino games, even Pompano’s recent record-breaking handles would not keep it operational as a pari-mutuel racetrack. Costs of racing infrastructure are high relative to costs of other forms of gaming; the large footprint of racetrack real estate makes it tempting for track owners to repurpose or sell.

Joe Pennacchio is president of the Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association (FSBOA). He watched the Senate Committee discussion online Monday, finding few answers to his questions about why his industry is under attack.

“I don’t know why they’re actually going to create a Gaming Commission, or why they decided to include standardbreds in the decoupling,” he told HRU. “The [Senate] session ends on May the 7th, and if the bill is passed it would go into effect July the 1st. It is my understanding, and I don’t know for sure, that from that day forward they would have no requirement to race horses” at Pompano.

Live racing was already slated to leave Pompano Park next year.

“That was the plan, before this bill came out,” explained the spokesman for the non-profit organization. “We had a settlement agreement with Caesars and The Isle ready to be signed, and they’ve put it on hold. So, The Isle, which is the entity that owns the [pari-mutuel racing] permit, would be the one that we would sign the settlement agreement with, but they are owned by Caesars [Entertainment, formerly Eldorado Resorts]. The state would have to approve the transaction.”

Where would Florida harness racing go, after Pompano?

The FSBOA president expressed concern that it may not move anywhere.

“In this particular case, it doesn’t matter,” Pennacchio said. “The harness racing permit that is held by The Isle is the only harness racing permit in the state of Florida. They’re not issuing any new permits, and if this bill was to be passed, they would have no requirements to do anything with their permit. They could just sit on it. When the permit goes dark for more than two years, then that’s the end of it — there would be no harness racing in Florida.”

The FSBOA sent a lobbyist to advocate at Monday’s Regulated Industries Senate Committee meeting. Lauren Jackson argued, “If the casino that holds this sole harness racing permit is allowed to decouple, the entire industry would be left with nowhere to go in the state. It would ultimately cost these families the only livelihood most of them have ever known.”

While there are some similarities to the referendum that ended greyhound racing there last year, Pennacchio said dog racing “was a slightly different story” because “that was an animal rights group that was really pushing to stop greyhound racing in the state of Florida.” But he viewed the current standardbred situation as politically “the same kind of thing.

“You get an amendment; you get more than 60 per cent; you’ve got what you want. Now, I don’t think that 60 per cent of the people in Florida would come out to vote against harness racing. We’re not seen in the light that the greyhounds were seen in. Our problem is just that the casinos have a lot of money to throw around, and we don’t have that kind of money.”

Floridians would have their say on any referendum about decoupling harness racing, or the FSBOA would take legal action, said Pennacchio.

“There’s a provision in the constitutional amendment that says that any increase in gaming in the state has to go through a referendum for the citizens to vote on, and it would require a 60 per cent [majority]. Of course, as is always the case in politics, people are trying to say, ‘No, not in this case. You don’t have to do that.’ It is our take, legally, that they would have to do that, and if they didn’t go to a referendum, we would file suit immediately to try to make that happen. That’s pretty much where we’re at right now.”

Submitted and reported favorably as a Committee bill, SPB 7080 will now move forward for consideration by Senate and the House. “Unfortunately, we’re in a very tough spot right now, and we’ll see how it shakes out,” said Pennacchio. “Generally, these things don’t come clear until you get close to the end of session, which as I said is May 8, so sometime between April 30 and May 8, this will become clear and we’ll see how everybody lines up at that point in time. But there’s some very big players in the state that have yet to be heard from as it relates to this bill. One is the Seminole Indians, who own Hard Rock [Casino], and the other is Disney.”

As for Isle Casino Pompano Park, warmer relations between the racing and casino sides haven’t brought about a reversal of the racetrack’s fortunes. “Yes, we get along with The Isle, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want us removed,” said Pennacchio. “If they don’t have us, they don’t have to spend money. It’s a good relationship, but from a business perspective, they want us gone. This is all about money. We’ve been at this for 11 years, fighting with these people.”

“The Winter Capital of Harness Racing” is in horse country where many young standardbreds get their start, yet there is little overlap with Pompano.

“Many, many people come to train in the winter. They’re not there to race. It’s not a big deal for them,” he said. “Very few of them have ever tried to help the local guys survive. The big money in our sport is in the yearlings and just training them down, bringing them up north and racing them. […] They’ve never been very involved in what we’re doing.”

But without a pari-mutuel harness track, how long can Florida’s standardbred industry survive? Pennacchio said he hopes that people who may not race at Pompano or reside year-round in the Sunshine State will support the battle against decoupling.

“They should call their representatives, because they all have Florida addresses, all the wealthy guys. They should call and say that they do not want to decouple harness racing.”

They shouldn’t wait to speak up, either, with a decision “imminent, one way or another,” although the outcome was still unpredictable.

“Until the two big players in the state, the Seminole Indian Tribe and Disney, take a position, it’s hard to say. I’d say it’s 50/50 right now. In other years when we’ve faced this, I would’ve told you that it was much more in our favor.”

Partnering with thoroughbred interests is not going to bring shared protections for standardbreds, because of the lopsided situation between the breeds.

“The thoroughbred guys have far more money than we do to throw around,” Pennacchio told HRU. “It’s not being driven by Gulfstream and Tampa Bay; it’s being driven by the thoroughbred breeders who are in Ocala and have a lot of money. They’ve always been willing to throw us under the bus.”

Despite the input of Senator Rodrigues, whom he called “a good friend to harness racing,” the FSBOA president said he feared the current struggle might mean sundown for pari-mutuel harness racing in the Sunshine State.

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