TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Once posh destinations drawing A-list socialites, celebrities and gangsters, Florida's dog and horse tracks are now at the center of a dispute over whether they should be allowed to do away with live racing altogether.
The issue, known as "decoupling," is one of several key items lawmakers and industry leaders are trying to work out as they cobble together gambling legislation for the session that begins next month.
Eliminating dog and horse racing at the state's pari-mutuels would be allowed in a $3 billion, seven-year agreement, called a "compact," signed by Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe of Florida last week.
But the Legislature needs to sign off on the deal, almost certain to be modified in order to get the votes required for passage in the House and the Senate.
Decoupling remains a thorny issue for lawmakers and the industry. Under current law, live races -- or offering jai alai games -- are required for tracks to have more lucrative operations like poker rooms or, in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, slot machines. The number of racing days varies widely.
Doing away with money-losing greyhound racing has drawn repeated legislative debates in recent years, as dog tracks are widely viewed as a dying industry, kept afloat by tax breaks and poker rooms -- or slots -- that put the facilities in the black.
But across-the-board decoupling of dogs and horses, as permitted under the compact, is more complicated, according to House Regulatory Affairs Chairman Jose Felix Diaz, the chamber's chief negotiator on the gambling deal with the Seminoles and the lead on gambling legislation.
"There's some (legislators) that would be OK with decoupling all horses. There's some that would be OK with decoupling most horses but not thoroughbreds. It does get a little stickier when it comes to horses," Diaz, R-Miami, said.
Only three tracks -- Gulfstream Park, Calder Race Course and Tampa Bay Downs -- now run thoroughbreds.
Last year, The Stronach Group, the company that runs Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, took over racing operations at Calder, owned by Churchill Downs, in nearby Miami Gardens. Calder leases its racetrack to The Stronach Group, which operates racing under Calder's permits.
But now, Calder wants to get out of the horse-racing business altogether, while keeping its slot machines and hoping to re-establish its card room.
Calder would continue to steer money from its slot machine earnings toward purses for horse races, pursuant to its contracts with the horsemen and breeders, according to Calder lobbyist Wilbur Brewton.
Attendance for the horse races is down dramatically at the Miami Gardens track, Brewton said.
"It's just wrong to continue to require racing at facilities so they can lose a substantial sum of money doing it. It's like you have two franchises for McDonald's and one is losing money and the other isn't, but they say you have to keep both of them open," he said.
But the horse industry is dead set against the idea of letting tracks drop the races.
"This is just a money grab by the casinos. That's all it is," said Joe Pennacchio, executive director and president of the Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association. "Maybe if they traded horses for blackjack tables, they may make more money. But that's not how they got their permit. They got their permit because they agreed to race horses. My point is if you don't want to race horses, that's fine. Just give the permit back."
In Central Florida, the horse breeding and training industry provides thousands of jobs and injects billions of dollars into the state's economy, Pennacchio said.
"There are some legislators who are emotionally invested in getting rid of the dog racing. I understand that. But to even think for a second that you would lump horses in with that is preposterous," he said.
The economic and political heft of the horse industry is likely to doom across-the-board decoupling.
But Diaz said that any legislation would "take care" of Calder, if horse decoupling is not included in the bill.
"I look at it as a matter of equity. It's difficult to decouple everybody except for one and not listen to the one that is being excluded. So if everybody gets decoupled except for thoroughbreds, then there needs to be some considerations for those tracks that are not being decoupled but would like to be," he said. "I think it would be unjust to start picking winners and losers. So if that's what ultimately happens because that's where the votes are, then those losers would need to have something done that would alleviate some of their concerns if we want to pass an equitable deal."