Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 9:01 AM
The Florida legislature began a two-month session Jan. 10 with a big part of its focus on a wide-ranging gaming bill that could lead to the first all-games casinos in the state along with other changes that would impact the Thoroughbred industry.
Meanwhile, Florida’s Thoroughbred horsemen and breeders’ associations are putting priority on working for passage of a separate bill, sponsored by important committee chairman Sen. Dennis Jones, that would prohibit pari-mutuel barrel racing in the state.
The large-scale bill is stirring controversy, especially from opponents of gaming, primarily because it would authorize at least three destination resort/hotels that would have full-scale Las Vegas-style casinos with the state’s first craps tables and roulette games. Gulfstream Park and several large casino companies are among entities that have expressed interest in owning and operating a destination resort.
Details, including whether Thoroughbred tracks and other pari-mutuel facilities would obtain any tax concessions or new gaming products, have undergone several changes in pre-session hearings. Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff introduced the bill in November.
While supporters maintain that destination resorts, starting with license fees, could help Florida’s economy, there is a widespread view that the full legislature will not approve the bill. Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon and several other leaders in both houses have told daily newspapers they will not support any bills that include the expansion of gaming.
Jones noted the bill permits only 10% of a destination resort’s space for a casino. The remainder would include the hotel and exhibit space for trade shows and conventions.
“Florida is already one of the biggest gaming states,” Jones said. “I would hope that this bill would be viewed as a way to create jobs and bring more conventions and revenue to Florida.”
As of Jan. 10 the legislation included several so-called parity provisions that would be favorable for pari-mutuel outlets. Jones is among the senators that favor providing some incentives for pari-mutuel facilities if destination resorts are authorized.
The two southeast counties of Miami-Dade and Broward are the only Florida counties in which pari-mutuel facilities can have slot machines. They pay a state tax of 35% on revenue from Las Vegas-style slots.
Gulfstream and Calder Casino & Race Course are among five facilities with the machines. Hialeah Park plans to open a casino with slots if it wins a lawsuit now under consideration by the Supreme Court of Florida.
The latest version of the bill would allow the racetracks to have casino games available to destination resorts if they open in either county. The southeast counties’ pari-mutuel outlets would pay the same 10% tax rate as the resorts.
If destination resorts open, pari-mutuel facilities in other Florida counties would be able to have video lottery terminals. Tampa Bay Downs would be among the eligible facilities.
Removal of the parity provisions is among the possible changes the legislation may see in the next several weeks.
Gulfstream officials said they were reviewing the bill and thus declined to comment. Gulfstream president and general manager Tim Ritvo previously told The Blood-Horse that Gulfstream would like to be considered as a destination resort site.
The bill would create a Florida Gaming Commission that would review bids for the sites. The commission would replace the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering as the regulator of Thoroughbred racetracks.
The legislature is scheduled to end its session March 9. There are prospects it could extend the session or that Gov. Rick Scott could call a special session for later in the year.
Breeders’ Cup bill resurfaces
Identical bills in the House and Senate would allow Hialeah Park to again hold annual Thoroughbred meets, provided it becomes a site for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. The measure was first discussed in 2011.
The bills authorize the Florida DPMW to issue a “Breeders’ Cup Permanent Meet” permit at the facility of a Florida horseracing permit-holder that becomes the permanent site of the Breeders’ Cup or is selected to be among tracks in a rotation for the annual two-day event.
The holder of the permit would be allowed to conduct a Thoroughbred meet each year from early November through Nov. 30, including years when it does not hold the Breeders’ Cup. Sponsors of the bills are Republican Rep. Eduardo Gonzalez and Sen. Rene Garcia, who both represent the Hialeah district.
The bills do not mention any facilities by name, but they include language on obtaining a casino license that is in line with Hialeah Park’s goals.
Opposition can be expected from several pari-mutuel facilities, most notably Calder. Under the bill, Calder would relinquish its important November race dates to long-time rival Hialeah with tax credits in return.
Hialeah has not held Thoroughbred races since 2001 and no longer has a Thoroughbred license. It is holding its third Quarter Horse meet through Feb.19.
Measure targets barrel racing
The prohibition of pari-mutuel barrel racing is a centerpiece of legislation its sponsor, Jones, calls “the pari-mutuel clean-up bill.” He is chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, which has initial Senate jurisdiction over gaming issues.
Passage of the bill would achieve a goal of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association by preventing holders of Quarter Horse permits from following Gretna Racing near Tallahassee from using them to hold pari-mutuel barrel racing. The Thoroughbred associations view Gretna’s racing as a low-cost way to obtain licenses for year-round poker rooms.
The Thoroughbred associations are allied with the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association and the Florida Quarter Horse Breeders and Owners Association on the barrel racing issue.
Phil Combest, president of the Florida HBPA, said that in meetings with legislators horsemen will emphasize that barrel racing is illegal competition for gaming dollars for the Thoroughbred industry, which has been a long-standing major employer in Florida.
Gretna Racing has been able to hold barrel racing, rather than traditional flat track Quarter Horse racing, because Florida laws specify the breeds of horses but not the types of races that must be held with horse racing licenses.
The bill states that “horse racing does not include steeplechases, hurdle races, barrel racing, timed events, pole pending, or any other rodeo” or related events. The bill also states that Quarter Horse racing may be conducted only “on a straight path on a traditional oval or straight path.”
Jones said Gretna Racing is “operating through a loophole in the law, and this would close it.”
If passed the bill would become effective July 1, 2012. Jones said he is uncertain whether Gretna Racing and any other facilities that begin pari-mutuel barrel racing would be able to continue that activity.
In a related issue, the wider-ranging bill would revoke all “dormant” pari-mutuel permits unless permit holders obtain licenses for them by July 1, 2012. Facing the prospect of revocation, five holders of Quarter Horse permits have applied for licenses with the Florida DPMW since late December 2011.
They are the Ocala Breeders Sales Co.; Isle Casino & Racing at Pompano Park; South Marion Real Estate; Debary Real Estate; and Hamilton Downs. Information on whether any of those applicants plan to hold conventional Quarter Horse racing or barrel racing was not readily available.