The Florida legislature appears hellbent to allow greyhound, harness and quarterhorse tracks to decouple their parimutuel activities from their slots and poker rooms. A powerful Florida legislator is proposing that Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs be given purse supplements as a consolation for allowing their competitors to become free-standing casinos. Gulfstream would be surrounded by 10 of them. As has been shown in Pennsylvania, Indiana and, only this past week, West Virginia, these supplements can be taken away as easily as they are awarded. The only hope for horsemen is to decouple the debate from approval of the Seminole Compact, the engine driving the bill.

MIAMI, Feb. 18, 2016--The war in Florida over decoupling seems to be slipping away from the thoroughbred side. Momentum is shifting toward greyhound, harness and quarterhorse tracks, who want to be relieved of their responsibility to operate pari-mutuels to keep their slots and poker licenses.

The latest indication came Wednesday. State Sen. Joe Negron championed an amendment that would give Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs $40-$45 million a year toward purses from the Seminoles and tracks that choose to decouple.

In an indication how settled the issue is in Negron's mind, he said he feels he has bent over backwards to satisfy thoroughbred interests. Negron isn’t just another state legislator. He is the Senate president-in-waiting. Next year, he will rise to a position that will make him the second or third most powerful political figure in the state, someone who can bottle up or advance a bill at his pleasure. So he is not someone other legislators are anxious to cross, especially over a bill for which most of them have no vested interest.

The best hope left, a Hail Mary pass of sorts, for the thoroughbred industry to slow the decoupling express might be with a different decoupling strategy. It should strive to decouple the issue from the monstrous Seminole compact bill, the engine driving the process.Approval of the Seminole compact, which promises Florida $3 billion over its first seven years, seems inevitable. It should be.

This is a dropped-from-Heaven windfall for the state for essentially extending the status quo. The compact guarantees that the Seminoles’ seven casinos around the state will face no new competition with the exception of one new slots operation in Miami and another in Palm Beach.

However, there is no reason pari-mutuel decoupling should have to be a part of the Seminole compact deal. Decoupling is just a tack-on to an already mammoth bill.

If it’s not too late, the thoroughbred industry should emphasize that decoupling is important enough and has sufficient nuances to Florida’s multi-billion dollar pari-mutuel industry that it deserves a full debate on its own, separate from the Seminole compact negotiations, the legislature’s priority.

Among the negative ramifications would be rewarding Churchill Downs Inc. for obnoxious behavior at Calder. It will be able to keep its casino license without the obligation to have Gulfstream conduct an eight-week race meeting.

Another indication that the tide is turning came last week after a House committee meeting. Marc Dunbar, attorney for Gulfstream Park, said The Stronach Group is open to a deal similar to the one proposed by Negron. To that moment, Gulfstream had been adamantly opposed, at least publicly, to decoupling.

It appears Gulfstream realizes all is lost and is trying to salvage the best deal it can cut. Otherwise it’s difficult to understand how the company as a whole would benefit. Its slots and poker room would be surrounded by five competitors (including the new one) in Miami-Dade County; three in its home county Broward and the new slots operation in Palm Beach County.

Flush with cash saved from not having to support racing, Gulfstream’s competitors would be able to upgrade their facilities and introduce perks Gulfstream’s casino would be unable to match.

This is to say nothing of the Seminole Hard Rock, which has sweetened its pitch to lawmakers by promising to build a landmark guitar-shaped 800-room hotel if the compact is approved. Thousands of temporary construction jobs and eventually permanent hotel jobs would be created.

This will put Gulfstream’s casino in the position of being like a 7-11 surrounded by ten Walmart Super Stores.

Florida’s horse industry should have felt a biting chill in the midst of the decoupling debate. A proposal was introduced in the West Virginia legislature to allow Charles Town and Mountaineer race tracks to decouple horse racing from their casinos. The state wants the money that goes to thoroughbred purses to be redirected to the general fund.

If this proposal proceeds successfully through the legislative process, thoroughbred racing is almost certain to cease to exist in West Virginia within the next year or two.

West Virginia is part of a national trend. Indiana and Pennsylvania have redirected money promised to horsemen when casinos were introduced. New Jersey racing is in its death throes since purse supplements Atlantic City was supposed to contribute were eliminated. There are rumblings out of New York that Resorts World, which runs the casino at Aqueduct, is looking for ways to limit its future contributions to horse racing.

If Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs have to swallow this deal, they had better make sure the length of the agreement is in perpetuity or as close to that as they can negotiate. Anything less and it’s just a matter of time before the decoupled tracks and/or the state start looking for an escape hatch.

The South Florida racinos had barely opened their doors when they began bellyaching that their tax rate was onerous and they needed relief. Another element of the Seminole compact package will reduce their tax bite. The horsemen might not have access to the right ears but the casino people apparently do.

How long into the purse fund contributions do you suppose it will be before they complain that they should not be compelled to support what amounts to a competitor. Something Negron said indicates they will find a sympathetic ear in Tallahassee. “We have generous purse pools that frankly are coming from people involved in another activity. We’re taking money from them to subsidize people that want to race and raise horses.”

Clearly, someone on the cusp of becoming one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state, doesn’t have a clue about how important thoroughbred racing and breeding is to Florida’s tourism and overall economy. This in itself is frightening.

The war isn't over. Decoupling is still rattling around committees and is far from the finish line. United Florida Horsemen, a coalition of thoroughbred, standardbred and quarterhorse interests, isn’t giving up the fight. It issued a statement on Wednesday saying it strongly opposes any form of decoupling whatsoever.

Separating the decoupling issue from the Seminole Compact negotiations appears to be the only hope to derail, or at least delay, what is increasingly appearing to be inevitable.