10/23/2013 6:03PM

Florida racing industry representatives speak at gaming committee hearing


Nearly a dozen representatives of the Florida parimutuel industry, including Eclipse Award-winning trainer Dale Romans, appeared on Wednesday afternoon at a Florida Senate Gaming Committee hearing in Coconut Creek to extol the industry’s economic impact as part of a campaign to vie for influence during an upcoming effort to rewrite the state’s gambling laws.

The parimutuel representatives were part of a slate of more than 90 people who spoke at the hearing, including supporters and opponents of what is expected to be an all-out effort to approve new casinos in the state during the legislative session beginning next year.

The parimutuel representatives nearly unanimously stressed that they believed the racing industry had a positive economic impact on Florida without specifically requesting what they were seeking from any legislation, a typical political strategy at the outset of any legislative effort revolving around the award of lucrative licenses that can generate millions of dollars annually for a variety of constituents.

Joseph Iardisernia, a part owner of Northwest Stud in Ocala, said that breeding operations like his support a vast number of agricultural jobs. “Consider this as you go into your next legislative session,” he said.

Kent Stirling, the executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, simply used his time at the microphone to reel off a litany of statistics about employment and the economic impact of Thoroughbred racing. He pointed to a study commissioned by the legislature examining the state’s existing gambling industries that said that each horse in training produces $25,000 in spending each year.

The Florida legislature has said that it plans to rewrite the state’s gambling regulations as early as next year, and most expect the legislature to authorize new casinos following an intense lobbying effort by casinos and construction companies. Horseracing interests intend to lobby to at least protect their existing share of casino revenues, while also being wary over the recent efforts by some companies to obtain racing permits through the establishment of parimutuel barrel racing, for example, or the performance of a lone Quarter Horse match race, as a company associated with Gulfstream Park did earlier this year.

The Florida Horsemen’s and Benevolent and Protective Association and the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association have vociferously objected to the awarding of those permits and have filed complaints with the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering over the legality of them. The horsemen’s organizations have argued that the companies receiving the permits are seeking to establish a foothold in any future casino-gambling expansion, and that they are concerned the companies will use the permits without directing any casino revenues to horsemen.

Speakers at the hearing were limited to two minutes. Romans used his two minutes to state that when he brings his 150 horses to south Florida in the winter, he will bring with him a weekly payroll of $60,000, all of which gets spent in the local market.

But Romans also was highly critical of south Florida’s existing parimutuel facilities, saying that the racetracks had focused their efforts on the casino sides of their businesses since opening slot-machine casinos six years ago without putting a comparable investment into their parimutuel operations.

“We’re the labor-intensive side of the business, and once you get a casino, you don’t want to deal with the labor side of the business,” Romans said.

While supporters of expanded gambling dominated the first half of the hearing, the second half was dominated by opponents of greyhound racing, many of whom used graphic language to urge the state to either abolish greyhound racing outright or pass legislation that would end a requirement that slot-machine facilities also run parimutuel operations. Several of the speakers identified themselves as being part of a successful effort in 2008 to ban greyhound racing in Massachusetts.

One speaker, Randolph Goodman, stated that he supported the decoupling of racing and casino licenses in order to expose the financial weakness of greyhound tracks, which rely on subsidies for purses and operating expenses, he said. “There is no demand for greyhound racing any more,” Goodman said. “If you decouple, you will see.”

Any successful effort to decouple licenses could have a significant impact on Thoroughbred racing as well. Although Thoroughbred tracks are believed to be profitable on their own, the subsidies have allowed the tracks to boost purses and maintain race days. In addition, it’s believed by horsemen that if Churchill Downs Inc. were able to operate a casino at its Calder Race Course without continuing to race, the company would seriously weigh the prospect, perhaps ceding its racing dates to Gulfstream Park, which is owned privately by the billionaire horseman Frank Stronach.