End of the line for Florida harness track bill

Florida Sire Stakes to race on in 2022 and beyond.

by Melissa Keith

Last week, Florida House Bill 1269, “a bill to be entitled ‘An act relating to pari-mutuel wagering’” failed to get the support it needed to become law. Put forward on Jan. 6 by Dan Daley, Democratic State Representative for House District 97, the bill had sought to provide protection for pari-mutuel standardbred racing in the Sunshine State, which will otherwise go dark on April 17 at the conclusion of the final Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park meet.

Last Friday (March 11), Daley updated HRU about why HB 1269 didn’t survive.

“The House Bill moved through two committees unanimously. The third and final committee stopped meeting before we could get it on the agenda, so the bill is dead,” he said. “Part of the issue is that the Senate Bill was never heard in committee. Unfortunately, the Senate President [Republican Senator Wilton Simpson] was not interested in hearing the bill – even though he is running for Florida Agriculture Commissioner.”

A similar fate met Daley’s previous attempt to get Florida standardbreds the legal protection against decoupling that was extended to thoroughbreds last year; Senate would not hear his amendment to protect harness racing.

This time around, “I even tried to put it as conforming language in the budget (a loophole to try and get language into law) and was unable to get a commitment from the Senate President to take the language,” he said via email.

HB 1269 would have allowed other gaming venues, such as defunct greyhound tracks, to potentially host live harness racing. “If passed, it would have provided an existing operator to offer harness racing, meaning the industry would at least have an option moving forward,” said Daley. “There was interest in the panhandle area and in the Tampa Bay area, as well.”

He added that he has been hearing plenty of negative feedback about the imminent end of pari-mutuel harness racing in the state.

“Of course, the horse world is angry about the closure [of Pompano] — as they should be. I have continued to hit Caesars on the rollout of the rebrand and soon-to-be redevelopment of the property. They want to be patted on the back for [creating] a few hundred jobs, while simultaneously, single-handedly killing an entire industry. Horsemen at other Caesars-owned tracks should beware – Pompano was an expertly-crafted sellout and they would do it again in a heartbeat.”

With a wave of Pompano nostalgia rising as the track’s final month of racing nears, Daley doesn’t see himself being able to join the extended farewell in person: “Not likely. I am finishing up our Legislative session in Tallahassee.”

Meanwhile, the Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association (FSBOA) has continued to look for new ways to keep racing.

“Starting this fall and going forward, the FSBOA does have a license to race [Florida] Sire Stake horses in the state, and fair races, and we will do that,” said organization director/past president Joe Pennacchio. “The five breeders on our board are interviewing and talking to different locations. Many of the obvious ones are possibilities, like Sunshine Meadows in Delray Beach and Spring Garden Ranch in De Leon Springs [North America’s largest standardbred training facility]. They’re just talking to those people about timing, opportunities, and it won’t be a problem. We have our funding in place for this ‘22 year, so it’s okay.”

Currently, the FSBOA president/treasurer is George Birkhold. With the association holding its annual meeting next month, Pennacchio wasn’t certain who would lead it into 2022/23, although he confirmed, “We’re in good shape for this year, I mean, as good as we can be for Sire Stakes.”

Saturday (March 12), Pennacchio confirmed that there will not be a pari-mutuel license in place for next season’s stakes/fair races, which will be conducted at USTA-accredited venues only, “but we’ll go back at it again, next year.”

He added that the FSBOA has “had Sire Stakes at all those places [training centers] before, so that in itself is nothing new.”

He had no comment on Daley’s bill, stating only that if a prospective harness track owner/operator had stepped up early on, “I think things would have been different, but nobody wanted to be the person or the company that was going to stand up and race harness horses in Florida, because unfortunately, nobody either in or out of the industry was ready to do it.

“If you have a Florida-bred, you’re gonna race. It’s gonna happen. And I would just say that the political thing is over, for this year.”