08/31/2007 12:00AM

Hancock: Higher purses, slots, 2008 goals


The coming weeks could have a serious impact on Florida racing and breeding. The state, according to federal statutes, must soon address the matter of the Native Americans and their desire to implement table games at their half-dozen casino operations. There is concern that Gulfstream’s parent company, Magna Entertainment, is saddled with significant loan obligations. And there is also the effort of a local group, Citizens to Save Hialeah Park, which is trying to bring back Hialeah.

With all these matters and more coming into focus, Dick Hancock, the executive vice-president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association, answers some timely questions.

Dave Goldman: What are the principle challenges facing the Florida Thoroughbred industry?

The industry, breeders, owners and racetracks must improve breeders’ incentives and purses in Florida.

Gulfstream Park increased purses by 14 percent to $334,627 for their 88-day meet. However, slots were a huge disappointment. We expected a significant increase as a result of a full year of slots. It appears that there will be an insignificant increase from slots in the purse account for the 2008 meet. Had Gulfstream Park averaged somewhere between the slots average at Hollywood Dog Track and Pompano Harness Track, their average purses for the 2008 meet would be increased by $82,000 per day for a $425,000 average daily purse. Card rooms should also cause an increase in purses for next year’s race meet.

If Calder’s management is able to maintain last year’s $256,000 average daily purse distribution, they will have done a great job. . . . Miami-Dade County voters will again have an opportunity to vote on slots. Calder’s experiment with a three-day race week was unsuccessful, and they are losing stabling to other tracks. Should slots pass in January of 2008, summer racing at Calder and Tropical Park could be exciting and something to look forward to, assuming Calder signs an agreement with the FTBOA and FHBPA instead of challenging the constitutionality of the legislation, and if Churchill Downs will invest in additional capital improvements to the facility.

Hialeah Park may be back in the mix if the outcome of a lawsuit against the state reactivates their permit. However, without slots it is difficult to see how Hialeah could be revived.

Tampa Bay Downs’s average daily purse distribution was $160,728, a slight increase over last year. The track is planning an expansion of its card-room facilities, which should increase purses noticeably. If the Florida legislature passes reasonable VLT legislation and breeders’ incentives, and purses are included the same as in the slot legislation, Tampa Bay Downs could be the place for Florida-breds in 2009.

What can the Florida Thoroughbred industry expect from the Florida legislature in this era of reducing taxes and budgets?

We are looking forward to two legislative sessions, [including] a special session this fall when Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s compact with the Native Americans will apparently be proposed to the legislature for approval. How this will affect Thoroughbred racing, slots and VLTs is unknown, but it may provide some opportunities. Hopefully, the Florida Thoroughbred industry and the other parimutuels can get on the same page before the special session in order to work together. We are looking forward to the 2008 regular session, as we expect the legislature to again address video lottery and other gaming issues.

What are the principle challenges for the Florida Thoroughbred breeding industry?

Our No. 1 issue will be to monitor the language in the current slot machine legislation requiring the Thoroughbred permit-holders to have a contract with the majority horseman’s group and FTBOA before being issued a license for slots. We want the same language in any VLT legislation. With that language, we can work with the tracks to lower the tax rates regarding slots and VLTs.

Next, we would like to address legislation that we have introduced in the past, but was objected to by the FHBPA and the tracks. It would allow more flexibility in our breeders’ awards program. One, we need to be able to pay breeders’ awards for first, second and third place. Two, we want some flexibility to improve our stallion owners’ awards program. It is not serving its purpose, which is to retain successful Florida-bred stallions in Florida. Three, we would like to consider paying awards to Florida-breds that win or place in or outside of the state of Florida in graded stakes. Four, we also need to address restricted races for Florida-breds. We have operated within Florida-bred preferred races, but the Jockey Club and the Graded Stakes Committee have removed black type from preferred races.

Other significant issues affecting the Florida Thoroughbred industry are: One, workers’ compensation, which is required, but not affordable in the state of Florida. Policies are not available on the market to many of the smaller farms and trainers, forcing them to obtain the insurance through the Florida Workers’ Compensation Joint Underwriting Association Inc. at extremely high rates. Two, U.S. immigration issues. And, three, removal of equine waste.