February 9, 2016
Tom LaMarra, Blood-Horse

Florida horse racing and breeding interests made their case against decoupling Feb. 9 during a House Regulatory Affairs Committee meeting, but lawmakers voted to move the legislation forward.

House committee members said the bills are expected to be debated and altered as they move their way through the legislative process. Because the bills are “proposed committee bills,” they will be sent to the Speaker of the House for reassignment to other committees.

Meanwhile, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee postponed its scheduled Feb. 9 hearing on the legislation in that chamber.

Lawmakers noted the House and Senate are split on a $3 billion compact with the Seminole tribe and what is being called an overall expansion of gambling. There also are differences of opinion on decoupling: removal of statutory language that requires live racing in order for tracks to have slot machines.

Decoupling is being primarily pushed by Greyhound tracks and foes of dog racing, though there is language in one bill that pertains to dog and horse racing in Florida. Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association executive vice president Lonny Powell told the House committee the group opposes decoupling but indicated lawmakers “understand we need a place to race.”

Tom Ventura, president of the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co., also said he opposes decoupling but recognizes efforts made by some lawmakers to protect horse racing. “We hope you will help us be competitive with other states,” he said.

Others who testified in opposition said decoupling would lead to dire circumstances for horse breeding and racing. They cited economic impact studies showing the industry’s contributions to the Florida economy.

“This is the beginning of lawmakers making provisions for removal of all forms of live racing,” said Gordon Reiss, a Thoroughbred breeder and member of the FTBOA. “I say ‘no’ to decoupling. We have livelihoods here at stake and you all need to be aware of that.”

Breeder Tonya Jurgens said she has lost clients from other states simply because of the uncertainty caused by the threat of decoupling.

“Our industry is in trouble,” Jurgens told committee members. “Casinos asked us to join them. It’s like a marriage. We did marry them. Now they’ve decided we’re a burden and want to divorce us but use our dowry.”

Lynne Boutte, whose family has a 35-acre farm in Florida, said she has a petition with 1,000 signatures from those who support the horse industry and oppose decoupling.

“We have been caught in a web of politics,” Boutte said. “Don’t lose sight of the money the horse industry puts into state of Florida. I ask you to draw a line through the word decoupling.”

Rep. Halsey Beshears said he sympathizes with breeders and owners but also said he had to vote in favor of the legislation.

“I don’t want you to think your time is wasted,” Beshears said. “Many of us are for agriculture; we’re not just from agriculture. In terms of your business, you need to look for ways to change the business. That’s what it is—you have lost your customer.”

A few officials who provided comments to the committee said it’s a misconception racing lost most of its customers; they’ve just shifted to advance deposit wagering. They said Florida is missing out on millions of dollars in revenue by not authorizing and regulating ADW.