It was Saturday night, and you were surrounded by a bustling stadium of nearly 6,000 men and women cheering on their favorite horses and driver as they flew by in two-wheeled carts while the smell of roasted peanuts and popcorn filled the air.
If you were lucky that evening, you might have even spotted the famous Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr., and it would almost be as exciting as your horse crossing the finish line and winning the race.
This was an average night at the “Winter Capital of Harness Racing,” the Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park (the “Isle”) after the new park opened in 1964 and harness racing was first introduced in Florida. It is a tradition that continues today, unless the Florida Legislature is successful in their attempts to push harness racing out of the state.
Harness racing is a technical and skilled sport also known as Standardbred racing, in which the horses race at a specific gait, pulling a small two-wheeled, chariot-like cart.
This tradition has been a part of Florida’s horse industry for more than a half-century, as the Isle hosted the world’s top Standardbreds, owners, trainers and drivers during the winter for some of the sports’ richest purses.
Currently, the Isle is the state’s only harness track, and some would suggest that harness racing is a dying industry in Florida — this is simply not true.
The harness racing industry in Florida is still very much alive today. Just ask the Isle, where in February, they had their largest single-night handle of over $1.4 million (the largest in the Isle’s history). Approximately 5,000 people are directly employed in the state of Florida between Standardbred breeding and racing, including drivers, owners, breeders and trainers. Thousands more Floridians derive income from the industry indirectly, including veterinarians, blacksmiths, grooms, supply shops, truckers, restaurants, and hotels that support visiting horsemen. There are 62 Standardbred farms and seven training centers located throughout the state of Florida. During the peak season, there are more horses in Florida than in any other state, providing a reliable economic benefit to many Floridians.
Unfortunately, a bill, House Bill 7055, is working its way through the Florida Legislature that would change Florida’s gambling law to allow the Isle to end live harness racing in Florida forever.
The legislation, in part, being pushed by a Nevada gaming company, would allow casinos to operate card games without running jai alai matches, quarter horse races, or harness races but still allows thoroughbred racing. This separation of live events and games is known as “decoupling.”
Current law requires any facility seeking to operate card games and slots to be tied to a “live” gaming mechanism, such as harness racing. If decoupling is permitted, the Isle would discontinue harness racing and could effectively kick the horseman off the property.
The Isle is so confident in their control over the Florida Legislature on this issue, that they have already applied for a rezoning of the property which would exclude any future harness racing.
Since the Isle is the state’s only harness track, this one piece of legislation is a targeted effort by the casino and would have the devastating impact of wiping out the industry for Florida while destroying thousands of jobs.
Harness racing has been a part of Florida’s tradition for decades. I know this personally as the son of a horseman, who grew up spending every spare moment working in the barn with my mom and dad, taking care of the horses, keeping them healthy and, yes, shoveling their manure.
This legislation, if passed, would upend Standardbred racing families by taking away their entire way of life. Growing up in this industry, I know the Standardbred community is composed of honest, fair, and hardworking people who are seeing their livelihood eliminated in this state.
Standardbred horsemen have been duped, deceived, and flat-out lied to for years, dating back to the original gaming ballot initiative in 2003. That year, the industry got behind the initial push for slot machines with a promise of higher purses and better facilities, but those promises never came to fruition. Instead, the insults from the Isle casino have never stopped.
Now, amid negotiations with the Isle to keep harness racing in Florida, the Isle pulled the proposed deal off the table because they were able to convince the state Legislature to decouple harness racing. After years of mistreatment and chipping away at these horsemen’s livelihood, this legislation is the final nail in the coffin.
Interestingly, thoroughbred racing has been protected and will continue to be tied to the pari-mutuel for them to operate. Once again, the Standardbreds and the entire industry surrounding them have been hung out to dry. The legislature should not be picking winners and losers.
If they continue to decouple harness racing, it will mean the end of an industry and a livelihood for thousands of Floridians who just want to care for their horses and feed their families.
This effort is unacceptable and must be stopped.
Rep. Dan Daley serves for Florida House District 97 (Coral Springs, Tamarac, Sunrise, Plantation, and the Florida Everglades).
April 20, 2021 at 5:35 pm
A class action lawsuit should be filed on behalf of gamblers who were likewise duped into believing that their playing in the Isle Casino was going to support Harness Racing. I know that I was. I’ll donate my share to a horse related charity.
April 20, 2021 at 8:25 pm
They need to ban and outlaw horse racing all together like dog racing, it’s a shame what these animals are beat with a whip and the horsemen would want you to believe these animals are well taken care off. If dog racing has been banned, so should horse racing, this is a dying industry and PETA should also voice there concern, these horses are castrated and rugged from time to time, more than the public can imagine
April 20, 2021 at 8:28 pm
“DRUGGED” not rugged sorry for the typo, also these horses are jogged in the intense heat and weather and stabled with what life, to run or jog there life off pulling a 2 wheel “chariot” really ? Lets call it what it is, animal abuse !
April 21, 2021 at 6:37 pm
You obviously know little to nothing about these animal. Most these animal are treated much better than the one that are pets living out in the heat being eaten by flies. Breed to perform, harness horses tend to miss the action of daily work when given time off. Most of the horses that hate the work are not likely to be racing or ever had raced as their form of protest is refusing to perform. Are there sins of this business, yes. 1-1.5% of purses should be committed to rescuing these animal from kill pens were they may show up years after their racing careers were over. Then the business has to do a better job weed out the ruthless people who use medication off label to enhance performance. Darwin said Ignorance more often begets confidence then it does knowledge, your statement is proof of that. Because if you ever were around the barn area you would know the vast majority of horsemen would spend their money to feed their horse before they would feed themselves.
April 20, 2021 at 9:15 pm
What amazes me is people thinking these animals aren’t taken care of or beaten . Sorry to burst your bubble Mr.johnson.
I was born and raised in the business ,as a caretaker and an owner. Most horses are taken better care of then Human beings. And you can’t hit a horse you can get fined , people see drivers with the whip and Immediately think their hitting them. Have you ever been to a circus,or show where a whip makes noise. Well hello!
Maybe you should’ve met a Real horse person before being so judgemental. These HORSES are Athletes preparing to race, getting trained from a young age and jogging miles building their stamina and body like a marathon runner, their bathed, brushed,rubbed down just like humans in training. you can’t compare dog racing to horse racing. We don’t shock our horses to chase a rabbit.
April 20, 2021 at 11:08 pm
I have known and seen my brother whip and beat these young babies into shape, so yes, i have seen it and witnessed it and have seen them drugged ! If they weren’t drugged why are they kept in the paddock after
Race for a urine screen ?
April 20, 2021 at 11:59 pm
Did you turn your brother in to the state and the track. If you want integrity, you should of started there when that happened ,,the who throws the first stone.
April 21, 2021 at 1:41 am
Steve Johnson, our horses are treated like gold. Our exercise schedule is adjusted to Florida weather. They are feed an amazing diet. These animals are not abused but loved. Castration is not a bad thing, ask any vet, they will recommend it! Apparently, your brother is a bad seed in our industry and should have been reported.
April 21, 2021 at 10:59 am
The HSUS and Grey2K sold everyone a bill of goods. greyhound racing isn’t banned in Florida and it isn’t banned in 41 states.
I would never support HB 7055 as it’s the same garbage that got wagering on greyhound racing banned.
Shame on you for watching some horses get drugged and not saying anything. I’m sure this is not the norm, but haters will try and make it the norm.
April 22, 2021 at 1:53 pm
Then if it’s not a norm for a horse to be drugged while racing, why is it mandatory for a drug test after win races ? Why not random ? Because its more than just one bad seed and or apple ! Think a horse would rather graze in a field than a stall all of its life and jogged pulling a chariot and whipped and “trained” to run its ass off ! Ban unnecessary animal abuse
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