Big Step Backward - by Tom LaMarra

Efforts by casino operators and lawmakers to back away from the original intent of laws that linked approval for gaming to live pari-mutuel racing—some of the legislation has titles that expressly mention preservation of horse racing and breeding—are nothing new. In some states the pushback began only several years after the laws took effect.

Tens of millions of dollars in purse revenue have been taken away and redirected in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In Iowa the state legislature approved a buyout of the greyhound racing industry to end live racing.

In Florida, legislative "decoupling"—separating gaming from racing by removing a statutory mandate that certain facilities must offer live racing to have casino-style gambling—has been a recurring issue with the dog racing industry, which has fallen on hard times for a number of reasons. Anti-greyhound racing groups have forged alliances with track operators whose focus now may be slot machines or card clubs.

Horse racing interests have warily watched these developments and have warned it's only a matter of time before the effort spreads beyond dog racing.

Well, it seems it has, at least according to Florida horsemen. A special legislative session on tribal gaming compacts in Florida later this year is expected to include a discussion on decoupling for all forms of pari-mutuel wagering. Boots on the ground have informed the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association that Thoroughbred racing could be in the mix when it comes to a legislative discussion on pari-mutuel decoupling.

"It's coming from a coalition of racetracks," Florida HBPA executive director Kent Stirling said. "The horsemen have not been involved. They're going to try to change the statute, and, yes, the horsemen plan to fight it."

Slot machines at Gulfstream Park have produced enough revenue to solidify its year-round racing program. Combined, Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs, which operates a card club but doesn't have slots because of the powerful tribal lobby, provide perhaps the most desirable winter racing product in the U.S. The amount of money wagered on live racing each day supports that contention.

Florida HBPA president Bill White noted the state's regular efforts at attracting businesses and investment to the state and wonders why government would want to reverse the economic growth horse racing and breeding have created since slots were approved about 10 years ago.

"So just imagine our lawmakers' embarrassment once they realize—perhaps all too late—that by approving decoupling, they will have both inadvertently expanded gambling almost overnight, as well as chased our horsemen right into the welcoming barns of more racing-friendly states," White said. "For Florida, the funding of live racing rather than stand-alone casinos creates million of dollars in yearly economic benefit through tourism, creation of small businesses, jobs, taxes, and a vibrant breeding industry. Whether it's Thoroughbred racing in South Florida and Tampa, or Central Florida breeding and Ocala sales, racehorses in Florida are big business.

"Recognizing this, Florida has traditionally gone to great lengths to provide additional economic and agriculture-based incentives to invest, buy, breed, and sell racehorses here at home. Part of that includes ensuring that live racing days remain a mandatory part of the gambling equation with the economic incentive of revenue dollars from slots."

Whether the state legislature buys into it remains to be seen—the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry in Florida has its share of lawmakers that support it and recognize its value—but the decoupling issue is reason enough for racing groups to spend money on lobbyists in Tallahassee.

There's no question racetrack gaming in many states has failed to move the horse industry forward, perhaps because structural changes such as pari-mutuel takeout reductions and cohesive promotional plans for racing have been largely ignored. Florida's two Thoroughbred tracks, however, do far better than most in the country, and it's apparent by how well their product is received in the marketplace.

Messing with that progress now, as the industry attempts to reinvent itself, certainly isn't the way to go.

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