Harness racing in Florida not dead, yet

Representative Dan Daley’s House Bill 1269 calls for recoupling Florida harness racing.

by Melissa Keith

April 17, 2022 appears on the calendar as the last-ever race date for Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park, although the live racing schedule footnote reads “dates subject to change.” What isn’t changing is The Cordish Companies and Eldorado Resorts’ plan to put a “world-class, mixed-use hospitality destination” on the South Florida racetrack property their “Live! Resorts Pompano” web page describes as “undeveloped” and “one of the best opportunities for development in the United States.”

The proverbial horse has left the barn, as far as racing is concerned: A 55,454-square-foot Publix grocery/liquor store and ten smaller commercial retail buildings will anchor the project, according to Pompano! Magazine real estate and development reporter Marie Puleo.

What is left, now that the decisions about Florida’s only pari-mutuel harness track are final? Last time Harness Racing Update checked in with Dan Daley, Democratic Representative for District 97, it was a little too soon to disclose much about future House Bill 1269, “a bill to be entitled ‘An act relating to pari-mutuel wagering.’” Filed by Daley on Jan. 6, 2022, HB 1269 is a bill to protect harness racing. It was submitted to the Florida House of Representatives and subsequently referred to the Regulatory Reform Subcommittee, State Administration and Technology Appropriations Subcommittee, and Commerce Committee on Jan. 12, 2022.

On Dec. 9, 2021, Daley explained how relocating pari-mutuel harness racing would be a substantial undertaking in the Sunshine State.

“You would need the opportunity to get that [standardbred racing] permit, which requires legal action, requires a bill and a law to permit you to do that. It is a heavy lift, because any piece of legislation is a heavy lift. But then also, candidly, you would need somebody willing to open that track, right? You need money; you need purses; you need somebody to build a grandstand. You’re talking about a not-so-small investment to open a track in Florida,” he said.

He added that other forms of on-site gaming (slots, table games, etc.) would not be automatically approved for a new harness track: “It’s probably a separate decision. I think they’re probably going to have to follow the standard route, only a little backwards: Normally, you would apply for a harness racing permit and then you would go through a process of getting slots approved because you have the harness racing permit. Here, we don’t have a harness racing permit [after Pompano closes]; we don’t really have the ability to apply for a harness racing permit. So unless we grant one in legislation, which is what I’m thinking about doing [he said Dec. 9, 2021], they’re not going to have the opportunity and then you couldn’t get slots. But down the road, could you potentially? Yeah, you could, potentially.”

The property owners cannot be compelled to keep racing in order to retain casino gaming at Live! Resorts Pompano, which will include expanded casino space, a two-floor sports bar, and a Professional Bull Riders’ zone with a mechanical bull.

“They’ve already won the other legal battle that says they’re allowed to transfer their permit from a harness racing permit to a jai alai permit,” said Daley. “As far as they’re concerned, they’re done.”

He said that Florida harness racing’s future will be decided elsewhere.

“It’s about: Are you going to be able to have standardbred racing at all in the state? Short of a new piece of legislation that I’m considering filing [i.e. HB 1269, which Daley filed January 6, 2022], or a legal victory, we’re not.

“Look, even if you had someone that was interested [as of Dec. 9, 2021], let’s assume that [the Seminole Tribe sports betting] court case* doesn’t go our way, you would need a piece of legislation to even give them the opportunity to go race,” he told HRU. “Right now, there’s no mechanism. Let’s say you have a wealthy guy out of Ocala that wants to throw $20 million at this – they don’t have the opportunity to get a permit. So that’s what the legislation would likely do, is give someone the opportunity to apply for a standardbred racing permit… I don’t mean to get too in the weeds with it, it’s just that there are a lot of different moving parts and I understand it more today than I did, certainly a year ago.”

(*When Bill CS/SB 2-A was thrown out in US federal appeals court last November, the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s gaming compact was no longer valid, taking away its Hard Rock Sportsbook sports wagering monopoly in the state. Florida harness racing supporters had hoped that “companion bill” 8-A (2021A), which introduced standardbred-only decoupling alongside Bill CS/SB 2-A, would be automatically invalidated as well. Bill King has noted in Sports Business Journal that the Seminoles’ current appeal is unlikely to be settled until at least June 2022.)

In mid-February, much depends on the fate of HB 1269, which includes amendments to previous wording that would allow existing Florida gaming venues to apply for a pivot to standardbred racing:

A greyhound [racing] permitholder, jai alai permitholder, thoroughbred permitholder, or quarter horse racing permitholder that held such permit during the 2020-2021 operating year may elect to conduct live harness horse racing. Authorization to conduct harness horse racing pursuant to this chapter may only be granted to a permitholder that held an operating license to conduct pari-mutuel wagering for fiscal year 2020-2021 or that holds a permit… Live harness horse racing may only be conducted pursuant to this chapter if such permitholder qualifies to retain the greyhound permit, jai alai permit, thoroughbred permit, or quarter horse racing permit held during the 2020-2021 operating year. Authorization granted to conduct harness horse racing to a permitholder other than a harness horse racing permitholder is not considered granting or issuance of a permit or license, or a conversion of such permit, but is merely considered an additional benefit of holding a greyhound permit, jai alai permit, thoroughbred permit, or quarter horse racing permit.

Daley said he believes there is support for the bill, which must still meet approval within a specific, narrow timeframe.

“There’s only so much time. It’s a 60-day window. If you can’t get the bill moving in that 60 days, it dies.”

If passed into law, the act will come into effect on July 1, 2022; holders of horse/dog racing and jai alai permits would then be able to apply before Oct. 1, 2022 to host live harness racing in Florida.