'Decoupling' Is Crazy: Why Subtract from Florida's Economic Gains?

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Jan 11th, 2016

by Nancy Smith

To some 440,000 Floridians, the most important question to be decided by the 2016 Florida Legislature is whether Florida's lucrative horse industry will be preserved or whether it will be allowed to die, a pawn in a political ploy to get more money in the hands of casino operators.

That's what decoupling ultimately means, the beginning of the end of a $1.2 billion industry -- and that's what's on the table this session.

Decoupling would allow pari-mutuel permit holders to scuttle live horse racing altogether, gradually removing venues for horse racing -- snatching the livelihood of horse breeders, trainers, owners and thousands statewide who depend on the industry. It's part of a broad legislative discussion involving gaming and Florida's pact with the Seminole tribe, which has full casinos in the state. 

Tracks would be able to offer more games of chance and races on video. Real racing fans, spectators of the sport, would have no reason to go to an empty track.

I Beg to DifferFlorida offers quarter horse racing at Hialeah Park and harness racing at Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park. Both facilities have slots, as do Gulfstream Park and Calder Casino & Race Course. What if there were no more live races at these tracks?

As United Florida Horsemen say in their NoDecoupling.com ad, "Florida horse racing is a lot like any other business. We compete with other states for the best racehorse owners, trainers and jockeys. This free market helps us stay on top. And it's working. Really great, in fact. Thanks to good public policy that ensures year-round live racing days and competitive purse incentives, Florida horse racing keeps growing and reinvesting in our economy ..."

It makes no sense that a governor and lawmakers who are justifiably proud of the Enterprise Florida/Department of Economic Opportunity programs that brought thousands of jobs to Florida in the last five years would think it's OK to throw away a vast, venerable and valuable industry like horse breeding, training and competition.

They need to saddle up with Florida horsemen and say NO to decoupling. Horse racing isn't greyhound racing -- the two need to be separated. Horse breeding, training and racing isn't -- as greyhound racing is -- an unpopular, dying industry with practices many Floridians consider deplorable. It's just a fact: Decoupling greyhound racing wouldn't have the same effect as losing horse racing in Florida.

The state of Florida has more than 500,000 horses and more than 60 percent of them are used for competition and recreation. That ranks us No. 3 in the U.S. as a home to all breeds of horses, led by thoroughbreds, warmbloods, quarter horses and Arabians. As a matter of fact, we're second to Kentucky among the 50 states in foal crop production.

Florida's equine champions are known all over the world. Our thoroughbred farms and training complexes have produced 47 National Champions, six Kentucky Derby winners, seven Preakness Stakes winners, six Belmont Stakes winners, 27 Breeders’ Cup champions and six Horses of the Year.

Think about it. The potential damage decoupling could do is devastating. There are some 900 horse farms in Florida with more than 104,000 employees, 12,000 of them employed by Florida horse racing.

Decoupling has a greater significance to the Sunshine State than finalizing the Seminole gaming compact. It's not a one-dimensional issue and it requires lawmakers to look deeper, take a longer view, appreciate horse breeding and horse farms as one of the state's treasured legacies.

In a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association president Eric Hamelback spelled out decoupling's consequences: "If Florida were to permit the removal of the statutory mandate requiring live racing in order to have casino-style gambling, then it is more likely than not that stand-alone casinos would rapidly replace live horse racing tracks. Casinos would welcome the ability to conduct business without the additional expenses that support live horse racing.

"This would result in the loss of substantial economic benefits that Florida enjoys from tourism, small business creation with horse farms, jobs, taxes, and a vibrant horse breeding industry. We respectfully request that you continue to support a vibrant agricultural-based horse racing and horse breeding industry."

The state of Maryland chose to go in the opposite direction. It's doing everything it can to resurrect the state's horse breeding industry. 

In 2013 it launched an expanded bonus program to boost the industry. The program, described in The Baltimore Sun, paid for out of casino revenue, nearly doubles the bonuses Maryland-bred horses earn when finishing in the top three in a Maryland race. Known as the Maryland-Bred Awards Program, the deal also increases the bonuses earned by the owners of those horses.

Maryland horse racing and breeding were in dire straits before voters decided to amend the state constitution and allow slot machine gambling at five locations in 2008. While most of the new slots revenue went to purses, 11 percent was set aside for "bred funds" — money meant to motivate breeders to remain in the state. (The YouTube video below -- also found here -- gives you an idea of Maryland's proactive attitude toward keeping and building a beloved industry.)

Florida horsemen aren't looking for a Maryland-style handout. But neither should they stand by while the state pulls the rug out from under their livelihood.

I admit, I take this issue a little personally. Though I have no financial stake in the industry, I have a considerable emotional connection. For all the years I lived in Martin County, at least once a week during the winter season I would get up before daybreak, get my youngest son up and we would drive to Payson Park, a 400-acre camp for billionaires' horses, on the eastern edge of Indiantown. What a thrill to watch trainers and jockeys in the breaking dawn put their horses through the paces. I got to know so many of the people there, one year even Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey.

It's hard to think about a century-old industry as quietly beautiful as this one, that represents generations of rural Floridians' dedication, that preserves agricultural land, that pumps so much into the state economy and keeps Florida in a competitive posture across the country ... it's hard to think that in 2016 it all could be wiped away with legislative carelessness and a stroke of the governor's pen.

I'm hoping Gov. Scott will think about this as he welcomes new businesses into the state. It's good what he's doing to create jobs. But by urging against decoupling, he can do a great deal more. It's no exaggeration to say he can save tens of thousands of established jobs and a Florida way of life unlike any other -- from what I've seen, second to none.

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