by Ryan Conley and Tom LaMarra
The Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association, which believes the state's racing industry is at a crisis stage, has released an aggressive legislative agenda that takes aim at laws its says create an uneven playing field with other gambling entities. Still, it appears there isn't industry consensus on just how to proceed.
Included in the wide-ranging agenda is a request for authorization of video lottery terminals at existing pari-mutuel facilities, as well as a specific request seemingly aimed at helping Magna Entertainment Corp. overcome a major roadblock in its plans to develop a racetrack near Ocala. The company floated the $60-million project in 2002.
Alternative gaming in other states has caused purses to increase dramatically above those in Florida and has lured horses and horsemen away from the Sunshine State, one FTBOA board member said.
"We all recognize that the (Florida) industry is in crisis," said Nadia Sanan, general manager of Padua Stable. "We need to be able to compete, or Florida racing in five years will not be the pinnacle of racing as it has in years past."
In an April 1 press release, the FTBOA announced proposed changes to the statute that governs pari-mutuel wagering. The goals, as outlined by association president Donald Dizney, are to increase purses and breed development awards, continue year-round racing in South Florida, and bring live Thoroughbred racing to Marion County, where Ocala is located.
Key issues for the Thoroughbred industry are elimination of the 7 p.m. curfew, which would allow Thoroughbred racing at night, and language to authorize Thoroughbred tracks to remain open all year through a combination of live racing and dark-day simulcasts. The bill also allows for the conversion of the Ocala Jai-Alai permit to a Thoroughbred permit, which would pave the way for live Thoroughbred racing.
The Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. owns the jai alai license, and also operates an off-track wagering facility.
"What we want is a Thoroughbred track, and only one Thoroughbred track in Ocala," Dizney said. "We encourage OBS and Magna to get together to make this happen. This bill has a long way to go to gain consensus. We need to get everyone behind this legislation in order to secure Thoroughbred racing's place in the ever-changing landscape of Florida's pari-mutuel industry."
The release also said the FTBOA has presented the proposed legislation to the "majority horsemen's group" and the racetracks, and that it hadn't heard input from horsemen or Calder Race Course.
"I am glad that the FTBOA has finally stepped up to the plate on issues such as the 7 p.m. curfew that the Florida HBPA has endorsed for several years," said Linda Mills, president of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "The Florida HBPA is supportive of any and all VLT initiatives in Florida that make sense.
"However, I cannot comment on any current VLT legislation that the FTBOA is proposing, as the Florida HBPA hasn't received the bill to review."
Gulfstream Park chairman Doug Donn said he hadn't seen the FTBOA release and couldn't comment on it, but he did reiterate MEC's wish list. Gulfstream is owned by MEC.
"Our position has been and is that we are seeking parity in the pari-mutuel industry, particularly for Thoroughbred racing," Donn said. "There are things other pari-mutuel (businesses) in Florida can do that we can't do."
Donn said MEC would like to be able to offer night racing, simulcasting on dark days, and the ability to sell and purchase signals in its market area, or within a 25-mile radius of Gulfstream. The company also remains interested in building a Thoroughbred track in the Ocala area, he said.
As for VLT legislation, Donn said MEC supports it as long as there is parity in the pari-mutuel industry. In any event, he said VLT legislation isn't really an option for this year.
Meanwhile, widespread support for a plan to convert the jai alai permit to a Thoroughbred permit apparently hinges on approval of VLTs.
"I can't speak for Tampa (Bay Downs), but if you introduce racing (in Ocala) for, say, an 80-day meet, you are either going to be taking horses away from Tampa or Calder, so what are you accomplishing?" said Walter Brewton, attorney for Calder Race Course. "If video lotteries come along, then all of these deregulation issues that Magna talks about constantly are not that big of a deal."
Said Peter Berube, general manager of Tampa Bay, which is located about 90 minutes from Ocala: "We're not in favoring of adding a track absent VLTs. Our position is VLTs are the number one issue in the state, and that any changes to (the pari-mutuel statute) be done after the VLT legislation."
State Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who supports Gov. Jeb Bush's stand against expansion of gambling, said he would consider the merits of the permit conversion.
"Expansion is the issue," said Baxley, who headed a subcommittee that last year killed a VLT bill. "If they have a plan where they would convert, it would be much more appealing. There is a very strong line between what we have and expansion."
The agenda may be too late in coming to have an impact on this year's Florida legislative session, which is scheduled to end April 30. Richard Hancock, executive vice president of the FTBOA, said it was necessary "to get ourselves into a position to give our racetracks a chance to succeed as soon as possible."