House panel approves pari-mutuel decoupling bill, fantasy sports bill

horse racing
Chris Latvala says a harness racing amendment is forthcoming.

Two House bills weaving the legal framework for the Seminole Compact’s impact on horse racing and on fantasy sports betting won approval Monday from the House Select Subcommittee on Authorized Gaming Activity.

Both bills, Republican Rep. Chris Latvala‘s HB 7A for decoupling casinos from pari-mutuel betting and Republican Rep. Josie Tomkow‘s HB 9A for fantasy sports, seek to create new parameters for gambling outside of Seminole Tribe of Florida casinos.

Both make it likely for Floridians to see gambling expand in those non-tribal games. The Seminole Compact itself is covered in HB 1A, which was not heard by the select subcommittee.

But the pari-mutuel decoupling bill is pitting parts of the horse industry against other parts, as the horse breeders and owners wish to see horse racing continue in Florida while some track owners wish to make that optional.

The bill would allow cardrooms and slot machine casinos run at jai alai frontons, former greyhound racing tracks closed down last year, and Florida’s last remaining harness racing track to be decoupled from those pari-mutuel gambling operations. That means those operations could cease, yet the casinos could continue.

That would not be so for thoroughbred racing, which Latvala and other proponents of the bill contend is still too big and too important an industry in Florida to risk losing.

That decoupling provision looks to be changing soon. Latvala indicated an interest in also nixing the proposed decoupling of harness racing from casino operations.

HB 7A, HB 9A, and a third bill, Latvala’s HB 11A, which would change licensing fees for fantasy sports operations, all were approved by the select subcommittee on split votes, strong enough to assure passage but still with bipartisan handfuls of representatives voting no. HB 7A was approved by a 13-5 vote; HB 9A by a 12-6 vote; and HB 11A by a 12-5 vote.

Perhaps the most passionate argument came over the possible fate of Florida’s last harness racing track and the community of standard bred horse breeders and owners set to lose their only Florida outlet if it closes. Caesars Entertainment, owners of Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park in Pompano Beach, already have applied for a rezoning that could eliminate the track if Caesars is allowed to decouple the casino.

Rep. Dan Daley, a Democrat from Coral Springs whose father raised standard bred horses, contended that Caesars plans to end harness racing despite the fact that this past racing season was a record year, because the company expects it could make more money with a casino on a mixed-use development. He urged that Florida keep the harness racing requirement, lest Florida’s Standardbred industry be wiped out by the loss of the track in the state.

“The horsemen and horsewomen of the Standardbred industry have gotten the short end of the stick for 15 years,” Daley said.

At the same time, a representative of Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach posed the opposite argument, contending that if Isle Casino can decouple, why can’t we?

Latvala said he already was considering amending the bill before it reaches the House floor to address Daley’s concerns about decoupling harness racing from casino game rooms.

“We are looking into the Standardbred’s issue and putting that back together,” Latvala said.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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