Horse racing in Florida is a billion-dollar industry. Its huge economic impact is much larger, for example, than another, much-coveted leisure industry--spring training baseball.
Horse racing employs many thousands of Floridians year 'round all over the Sunshine State, from the beaches of South Florida to Ocala's breeding country and beyond.
In fact, the magical pageantry, deep tradition and exciting competition of horse racing has drawn tourists southward to Florida for over 80 years!
Yet, as the Florida's 2014 Legislative Session approaches, the issue of "decoupling" threatens to undermine horse racing's giant economic impact and put thousands of Floridians out of work.
So, just what is decoupling? Simply put: Some pari-mutuel owners across the state would prefer to not actually hold horse racing, but rather just operate their casino--that is, "decouple" from live racing. Although the current momentum is toward decoupling dog tracks, once the precedent is set, the option is there to do the same in all areas of racing.
But why would pari-mutuel owners want to decouple? Simple. It costs a lot more to run a racetrack than a casino. For big corporate casino ownership, it's much cheaper just to operate slot machines and rake in the profits.
Florida's horse racing industry, which was here long before the casinos arrived, only relented to support casino gaming to ensure our viability in light of other states that were beginning to lure away our owners, trainers, breeders and horses with higher purses.
Emboldened over the past decade, casino-only interests are calculating that profits will soar by decoupling from horse racing, or even by implementing ridiculous schemes of "pari-mutuel barrel racing," "flag drop racing," or worse—all of which are much less horse-intensive by design. Never mind that thousands will be put out of work and billions will be lost to Florida's economy in the long term.
The ongoing threat of "decoupling" has signaled to potential horse owners, trainers and breeders—both in Florida and nationwide-- that a cautious path is necessary, because "decoupling" would almost certainly result in the dramatic shrinkage of available horse racing days, purses and racetracks themselves. Horsemen must ask themselves why they should take a chance on Florida? Easier just to send their horses and employees to another, more racing-friendly state.
Because state governments allow gambling as a means for revenue generation, any good public policy must incorporate the vast economic benefit of the horse industry compared to a casino-only scenario. In Florida, creating an untenable business climate for horse racing in favor of stand-alone casinos will mean far fewer jobs, much less economic impact, and loss of one of our signature industries.
Ironically, Gov. Rick Scott issued a call last year to businesses in Kentucky--the heart of thoroughbred racing--to relocate down to Florida. The reality is that "decoupling" would send a clear message to all Kentucky horsemen and horse racing investors everywhere that they aren't welcome in Florida after all.
At a time when Florida's horse racing industry is once again showing growth, "decoupling" is a bad idea. We urge our legislators not to allow it to happen.
Phil Combest is the president of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
Editor's Note: How much do you really know about the gambling industry in Florida? Test your knowledge, as well as read other opinions on the subject, at SunSentinel.com/Floridasgamble