02/05/2016 2:56PM

Florida horsemen lobby against ‘decoupling'

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Florida Thoroughbred interests spent Friday lobbying at the state capitol as legislators began negotiating wide-ranging gambling bills that could include language allowing racetracks to drop their parimutuel operations while retaining their licenses for casino-type games, according to state officials.

Language addressing so-called “decoupling” had not yet been hammered out in the bills by early Friday afternoon, but racing lobbyists said that legislation containing decoupling options was expected to be introduced late Friday or early next week. Both the Florida House and Senate have scheduled hearings on gambling bills for Tuesday.

Language that would allow some or all of the Florida parimutuel operators to decouple is expected to be part of a complex bill designed to approve a new seven-year compact between the state and the Seminole tribe governing the tribe’s casino operations. Under the compact, signed last month between Gov. Rick Scott and the tribe, the Seminoles would be allowed to offer craps and roulette at each of their seven casinos while paying the state a total of $3 billion over the next seven years.

The compact has to be approved by the legislature, which is approximately halfway through its 60-day session. The issue of decoupling has been of paramount interest to the state’s parimutuel operators, many of which support the option as a way of jettisoning their unprofitable racing divisions while retaining the right to operate card clubs and slot-machine parlors.

On Thursday night, a version of the bill contained language that would have restricted decoupling to greyhound and harness operators. However, the language of the legislation remained fluid on Friday morning, said Lonny Powell, the executive director of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association, a founding member of United Florida Horsemen, which was formed last year to lobby against decoupling.

“It’s so fluid that nothing has motivated us to change our position, which is a no to decoupling,” Powell said. “But we are also going to have to look at what is reality as well as what is conjecture.”

The version of the legislation that would have allowed greyhound and harness tracks to decouple also would have directed a portion of the money from casino-type games at the tracks that decoupled to Thoroughbred purses. Horsemen and The Stronach Group, the owner of Gulfstream Park and the leaseholder for Calder Race Course, now named Gulfstream Park West, have said that if decoupling is going to be allowed, then some revenue from expanded gambling in Miami-Dade and Broward counties should be used to supplement purses.

Churchill Downs Inc., the owner of Calder, has said it plans to tear down the Calder grandstand and redevelop the racetrack property. The company also owns and operates a casino on the site, and it has not stated any plans other than to continue operating the casino.

Although officials for The Stronach Group have promised horsemen that the company is committed to live racing, the company is privately owned by a family trust controlled by Frank Stronach, 83, and horsemen are fearful over what may happen if the racetrack changes hands.

Decoupling is only a minor part of the bill, and its insertion into the compact was pressed last year by a coalition of parimutuel operators and animal-welfare groups. Other major elements of the compact include the possibility of allowing for local approval of new gambling facilities, the repurchasing by the state of some gambling licenses, and the elimination of some dormant parimutuel permits that have been sought in the past to exploit any future expansion of gambling in the state.

“This would be much simpler if the conversation was only about decoupling,” said Powell. “But decoupling is only one part of this enormous compact. It’s challenging to make sure you get your industry protected.”