South Florida racing should be riding high after last weekend's huge Fountain of Youth day, which produced a handle in excess of $24 million, and set up a showdown between undefeated Kentucky Derby hopefuls Mohaymen and Nyquist in the Florida Derby. However the good feelings are tempered by an outbreak of EHV-1 at Payson Park and the continued looming specter of decoupling as the last week of the Florida legislative session approaches.

MIAMI, March 3, 2016----Florida racing could be forgiven for assuming the racing gods have it in for it. Mohaymen's smashing win in the Fountain of Youth seemed to put the final piece in place for one of the most anticipated Kentucky Derby preps in memory, the Florida Derby showdown with undefeated Eclipse champion Nyquist.

However before there was a chance to savor the prospect, Florida racing got hit with a shot to the gut with the possibility of a follow-up haymaker to the chin.

The potentially devastating blow is the discovery at the Payson Park training center of a filly with equine herpesvirus-1. This necessitated an immediate 21-day quarantine of the facility and the approximately 500 horses housed there. This includes the potent strings of Bill Mott, Christophe Clement and Shug McGaughey
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The impact on racing was minimal the first two days. Only one horse coming out of Payson was entered Thursday and Friday at Gulfstream. This weekend could be when the lock-in begins to take a toll. Clement had five horses nominated to The Very One, one of Saturday's tri-features, and reportedly planned to run two. He also had one for the Mac Diarmada. Mott had two eligible for this stakes, with one probable to run.

There are other stakes galore as the premier winter meeting winds down where horses from the Clement, Mott and McGaughey barns would be factors. Some of the upcoming Tampa Bay stakes also could lose star-power starters.

Also reports are Mott had penciled in the Honeybee at Oaklawn on March 12 for the 3-year-old debut of his outstanding filly Carina Mia. This will have to be delayed with the Oaks only nine weeks away.

Another downside is the reluctance of out-of-town barns to ship in for Florida stakes, fearful they could get marooned here if the quarantine spreads.

It's not just stakes horses coming out of the Payson barns. Clement, Mott and McGaughey runners fill the better class allowance races and MSW's, which fortify undercards. Moreover, these three are the big names. A lot of other top caliber horses winter at Payson. You won't find many $6,500 beaten claimers and $12,500 maidens.

The truly terrifying aspect of this situation, according to Mary Gallagher, general manager of Payson, is if another horse turns up positive for EHV-1, the 21-day quarantine clock starts again at zero.

In the best case scenario, this will be an isolated, single-horse occurrence and Payson horses will be eligible to race again in plenty of time for the stakes-studded Florida Derby card on April 2 as well as the plethora of big spring races at Keeneland, Aqueduct and Churchill Downs. The worst case scenario, a mass outbreak, is too catastrophic to even contemplate.

Then there's decoupling

The other prospective knockout blow is the continuing specter of decoupling, which would allow greyhound, harness and quarterhorse tracks and jai alai frontons to maintain their slots and poker operations without the obligation to continue their pari-mutuel sports. This would turn South Florida into a mini-Las Vegas. You could count on no hands how many race tracks have survived there.

Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs aren't included in the decoupling bill but Calder is. The end of the sham Gulfstream West meeting would be a good thing for racing even if it did reward Churchill Downs Inc. for bad behavior.

This ship hasn't sailed but the engines are fired up and the tug boats have pulled alongside. It's going to happen. It's just a matter of when.

The negative is it could also signal the end of racing at Hialeah forever. Not that many thoroughbred fans would mourn the departure of the quarterhorses, which are merely a gimmick to get slots and poker. However, as long as Hialeah was operating as a race track, hope sprang eternal for a thoroughbred renaissance.

An optimist might say that with the casino-sustaining Calder meet out of the way, Gulfstream could become amenable to a short fall boutique meeting at the world's most beautiful race track. The only good thing to come out of the Gulfstream West session is it served as a buffer between the summer and winter seasons and opening day of the winter meeting became an anticipated event. A short Hialeah session could do the same.
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However, someone intimately familiar with the thinking at Hialeah said that John Brunetti's two sons are strongly opposed to spending the money it would take to spruce up the place for thoroughbreds.

There actually is more good news than bad on the decoupling front. A Florida Senate committee refused to take up the massive Seminole Indian Compact this past Tuesday. Decoupling has been attached to that bill as part of an omnibus gambling package. With the session due to end March 11, a consensus has emerged that nothing will be done this year
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The hang-up is amendments that have been added to the Compact that would allow slots in six other Florida counties in addition to Miami-Dade, Broward and one new facility in Palm Beach, presumably at the dog track.

This is a deal-breaker for the Indians, who promised Florida a minimum of $3 billion over the next seven years if their monopoly on gambling in the state was guaranteed for 20 years. There also are provisions to allow the Seminoles to add table games, but the continued monopoly is driving the Compact.

The only thing more desirable for the thoroughbred industry than the status quo for another year is a status quo for many years. However, a well founded paranoia, justified by the many times horsemen have been screwed by lawmakers, has sprung up.
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The fear is decoupling will be decoupled from the Seminole Compact and tacked onto some other non-related sure-thing bill at the eleventh hour next Friday. There is plenty of precedent for this, especially as it relates to pari-mutuel bills.

So while signs are more positive than negative right now, there is no relaxing until the hammer comes down on the 2016 legislative session and decoupling has been tabled until at least next year.