Greyhound racing, that throwback to Florida’s days of early-bird dinners, cocaine cowboys and Coppertone tans, has been in decline for decades.
Opponents of the sport hope to hasten its demise.
Animal welfare advocates and state Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican from Thonotosassa and the chamber’s former president, are pushing for a 2018 ballot question that would ask Florida voters to ban greyhound racing by 2020. The state’s Constitution Revision Commission is set to decide this month whether to put the amendment on November’s ballot.
Critics long have called the racing industry’s treatment of dogs cruel, an allegation greyhound owners dispute.
Lee and activists say more than 400 racing dogs have died in Florida since 2013, many after injuries sustained on the track, including broken backs, broken necks and head trauma. They also point to greyhounds testing positive for steroids and cocaine.
Other criticisms: Greyhounds spend more than 20 hours a day in small cages, eat low-grade food and frequently are afflicted with hookworm, ticks and fleas.
“They are incredibly athletic and beautiful and graceful,” said Carey Theil, executive director of the anti-racing group Grey2K USA of Massachusetts. “We think Florida voters will look at this and think, ‘This isn’t how I would treat my dog.’”
Jack Cory, a lobbyist who represents the Florida Greyhound Association and the National Greyhound Association, disputes allegations of abuse. The dogs’ owners get paid only if the animals finish in the top four of any given race, so handlers have an incentive to coddle greyhounds, Cory argued.
“Common sense would tell you they’re going to do everything humanly possible to treat their animals well,” Cory said. “They’re animal athletes, no different than the basketball players and football players at FAU. Would FAU not feed their football players? Of course not.”
Cory said greyhound breeders have pushed tracks to improve safety by taking such steps as covering the electrical wire attached to the bait that dogs chase around the oval.
But in an era when dog lovers share beds and airplane seats with their pets, greyhounds are raised not as companions but as moneymakers.
“They’re living in such small quarters,” said Sonia Stratemann, a Loxahatchee Groves resident and head of Elite Greyhound Adoptions. “They’re not treated as pets. They’re treated as working livestock.”
Stratemann said she has taken in thousands of greyhounds over the years. The dogs’ racing careers typically end after a few years, and the animals arrive at Stratemann’s 5-acre property full grown but still learning how to live as pets.
“They’re very, very gentle,” Stratemann said. “It takes a good year for their personality to really come out. It’s like getting a puppy in a 4-year-old body.”
Amid the strenuous debate over the treatment of dogs, there’s no disputing another harsh reality: Greyhound racing no longer captures the attention of the gambling public like it once did. For the past quarter-century, the racing business has been shrinking.
In 2006, Florida greyhound tracks handled bets totaling $478 million, according to the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. By 2016, the handle had plummeted to less than $240 million.
Taxes paid by greyhound tracks fell even more dramatically, hitting $2.8 million in 2016, down from $13.8 million in 2006.
Among Florida’s 12 greyhound tracks, Palm Beach Kennel Club is the biggest revenue generator by far. The track, just north of Palm Beach International Airport, generated nearly a quarter of the statewide greyhound betting action in 2016.
Despite its pole position in Florida’s greyhound industry, Palm Beach Kennel Club’s pricing remains frozen in time. Admission and parking are free. The minimum bet remains $2, a sum that hasn’t budged for decades.
A burger from the track’s restaurant costs $7, and a Rooney-brand beer, named for the family that owns Palm Beach Kennel Club and the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, goes for $3.
Mike and Jan Nelson, of West Palm Beach, shared a Bud Light at the track during a recent matinee, and the retired couple said they occasionally visit for an inexpensive outing. The Nelsons aren’t die-hard racing fans, but they said the greyhounds appear healthy and happy.
Jan Nelson wondered if halting horse racing would be the logical next step after a ban on dog racing.
“We’d prefer to see it continue,” Mike Nelson said. “The dogs seem docile and friendly.”
A few minutes later, one of the greyhounds interrupted his walk to the starting gate to casually poop in front of a few dozen onlookers. After the race, a couple of the dogs wagged their tails gamely as handlers led them off the track.
The Kennel Club declined to respond to allegations of inhumane treatment.
“Since 1932, greyhound racing has been a part of Palm Beach County, and we plan to continue to offer world-class racing moving forward,” the Kennel Club said in a statement.
Despite the long history of racing at the track, the real action now is at the Kennel Club’s card rooms, and poker is paying the bills for greyhound racing. State lawmakers in the 1990s allowed dog tracks to operate poker rooms, so long as they kept dog racing.
In recent years, legislators have debated “decoupling,” which would allow dog tracks to end racing but keep their more lucrative cardrooms.
But changing rules for pari-mutuels such as horse and dog tracks is usually seen as only a small part of the much broader debate of how to manage all types of gambling in Florida. And the state’s regulatory system for gambling is so complex, and the stakes for competing special interests so high, that reform initiatives often collapse. One notable example was the 2015 proposal by Gov. Rick Scott to allow Palm Beach Kennel Club to operate slot machines.
Opponents of greyhound racing say the sport no longer generates enough tax revenue to support oversight, so it only makes sense to end racing and let dog tracks shift their focus to cardrooms. Proponents disagree.
“There is no animal abuse, there is no cost to the state, there is none of that other crazy stuff they talk about,” Cory said.
Animal-rights advocates, for their part, say Florida voters seem ready to ban dog racing.
“If the question is framed as an animal-welfare issue,” Theil said, “I think it’s a campaign that’s ours to lose.”