By Kim Robson:
Horse racing still carries with it a veneer of glamour left over from its glory days. In the 1930s and 40s, well-dressed celebrities including Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, W. C. Fields, Paulette Goddard, Ann Miller, Don Ameche, Ava Gardner, Red Skelton, Pat O’Brien, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard graced the rails with star power.
It was no different with thousands of greyhound tracks around the world. While less profitable than horse racing, dog racing is also far less expensive to stage. Only a handful of the biggest horse racetracks are profitable without casinos to support them. Dog racing is both doomed to oblivion by animal rights activists and propped up by casino gambling, and their existence has come to a crossroads.
On a recent afternoon at Flagler Dog Track in Florida, which is part of Magic City Casino, only a couple dozen patrons populated the 7,000-seat grandstand. “On a good day we can have 100 people on the stands, but they are mostly smokers who come out from the casino floor,” said Isadore “Izzy” Havenick, whose family has owned the track since 1953.
The decline of greyhound racing began years ago with the spread of casino style gambling. To appease track operators, states gave dog tracks generous subsidies from casino gambling revenue. The tracks themselves joined the casino business, with licenses that often forced them to offer a minimum number of race days, an arrangement called “coupling.”
In Florida alone, home to 12 of the 21 U.S. tracks that still host live dog racing, betting on live racing has fallen 74%, from almost $1 billion in 1990 to $258 million in 2013. The races have become a never-watched distraction from the highly profitable poker rooms and slot machines.
Many tracks are hoping the states will let them drop the facade of dog racing altogether and just run casinos. Politicians, though, are ever mindful of the interests of deep-pocketed casino operators who don’t want extra competition. In 2013, West Virginia lawmakers rejected a bill pushed by one of that state’s two dog tracks to cut its licensing fees by more than half and to reduce the minimum number of race days. Also, recently Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed a bill that will shutter one of that state’s remaining two tracks by 2016.
In 1931, Florida was the first state to legalize betting on greyhound racing. Now, however, they won’t allow tracks to keep poker and slots but ditch the controversial and unprofitable racing. Such plans are seen as an expansion of gambling, and face opposition from gambling opponents and other casinos. Proponents plan to keep trying.
The movement to end the “coupling” practice has created strange bedfellows between racetrack casino operators, who view live races as a burden, and animal rights groups seeking an end to greyhound racing altogether. Animal rights groups have long accused the industry of abuse, neglect, mutilation, and abandonment. Dogs are forced to live their lives in cramped cages except when racing. Poor performers are euthanized or sold to animal testing labs. A handful of lucky ones are adopted by loving homes.
“When decoupling passes, it will lead to a slow and gradual end” of the industry, says Carey Theil, executive director of the anti-racing group Grey2K USA.
Dog racing’s troubles also could be a bad omen for the horse racing industry, which in some states has identical laws tying it to casino gambling. Money bet at thoroughbred tracks dropped from just over $15 billion in 2003 to less than $11 billion in 2013, according to the Jockey Club. Some within the horse racing industry see decoupling laws as a threat to their own sport.
The death of dog racing would be the end of “a beautiful show,” said Duke Adkinson, a longtime fan who came to Flagler with his preteen grandson to instill in him a love for the races. “Everyone who has not seen it live needs to come at least once if they like greyhounds,” Adkinson said without a hint of irony.
Greyhounds have a majestic background as the chosen hunting dogs of European monarchs of the Middle Ages. Highly regarded for their speed and hunting prowess, greyhounds are so fast that only cheetahs can outrun them in a sprint. Revered since the 6th century BC for their gentle and quiet nature, they rarely bark. Because they sleep most of the day, it’s little wonder these hounds are affectionately called 45-mile-per-hour couch potatoes!
Greyhounds are the sweetest, gentlest creatures, and they make marvelous pets. Among the many dedicated organizations working to re-home retired racing greyhounds are The Greyhound Project, Inc., Operation Greyhound, and the Greyhound Adoption Center, plus countless other state- and locally-based organizations.