Florida Harness Racing Suit Claims Pompano Park Decoupling Illegal

Posted on: January 26, 2022, 03:16h. 

Last updated on: January 26, 2022, 03:41h.

Florida’s beleaguered harness racing industry is suing the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering over the new “decoupling” law that threatens to eradicate its sport and livelihoods.

Pompano Park
Sweet Heaven, driven by John MacDonald, winning at Pompano Park in December. But harness racing’s days are numbered in Florida. (Image: Jessica Hallett/Harness Link)

Also named in the lawsuit is Pompano Park. That’s Florida’s only surviving harness racetrack, owned by Caesars Entertainment, which operates the Isle Casino there.

Thanks to a law passed by the state legislature in May, the track is no longer required to fulfill a quota of live harness racing as a condition of its license to offer other, more lucrative, card games and gaming machines.

The same applies to pari-mutuel venues that were previously required to run a quota of dog racing and jai alai matches. But, crucially, not racetracks that operate thoroughbred horseracing.

Unequal Protection

The Florida Standardbred Breeders & Owners Association (FSBOA) is the plaintiff in the lawsuit, seen by The Sun-Sentinel. FSBOA argues the law violates the equal protection clause of the US Constitution because it potentially punishes harness racing while protecting thoroughbred racing.

“As a result of the enactment [of the law], the harness horsemen who have historically participated in live harness racing at Pompano Park are being treated differently, and in a far less financially favorable manner, than the similarly situated horsemen who participate in thoroughbred racing at the facilities of Florida’s thoroughbred permit holders,” reads the lawsuit, as reported by The Sun-Sentinel.

It is FSBOA’s contention that no valid reason exists for this difference in treatment among horsemen performing similar, if not identical, horse racing activities,” the lawsuit continues.

FSBOA also argues that the decoupling measure qualifies as an unconstitutional “special law,” because it applies only to Pompano Park and owner Caesars, and not the thoroughbred racetracks.

Caesars has not publicly said whether it’s curtains for harness racing at Pompano Park at the end of the 2022 calendar, although the expectation is that it will be. After all, the casino giant has shareholders to please.

Seminole Compact Voided

The decoupling measures were tied to the new Seminole compact, negotiated between the tribe and Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.

The compact, worth billions to the state in revenue sharing, gave the Seminoles the exclusive rights to online and retail sports betting in the state, as well as roulette and dice games at its seven Hard Rock casinos.

Decoupling, and the ability to add more gaming machines, plus sports betting in partnership with the tribe, was thrown in as a concession to the pari-mutuels.

In November 2021, a federal judge nullified the entire compact because it allowed the Seminoles to accept sports bets outside tribal land in violation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Yet the enabling state legislation that accompanied it remains.

The irony is that racetracks were originally granted card tables and gaming machines to help grow and protect live pari-mutuel racing, breeding, and racing infrastructure. That means harness racing in Florida is likely to be killed off by the gambling expansion that was supposed to support it.