Dog Days

By Hannah Wallace November 30, 2005

For anyone hoping to see an exciting dog race among a sunny crowd of revelers, venturing into the main lobby of the Sarasota Kennel Club is anticlimactic. Where lines of eager bettors should be crowding the dog track's long bank of betting windows, three tellers chat idly with security officers.

The customers are mostly silent, studiously perusing racing forms and glancing over bifocal lenses at the large-screen TVs to see thoroughbred horses approach starting gates at tracks across the country. Occasionally a customer hurriedly approaches one of the facility's touch-screen betting machines to make a simulcast wager and then watches TV again while a satellite beams the image of the horse race-live-into the clubhouse.

Outside, the grandstand and track are quiet and bereft of life, except for a few pacing smokers and an occasional blade of grass reaching through the untended oval's sandy surface.

Once a favorite activity attracting families, retirees and tourists from Tampa to Port Charlotte, a summer day at the Sarasota track is now strangely sedate. The track draws larger crowds when live races run during the busier winter season but, if state statistics are any indication, the subdued atmosphere is becoming more common at venues across Florida.

Over a 10-year span ending with the 2003-2004 season, the total handle, or amount wagered, at Florida greyhound tracks decreased by 39 percent, according to numbers released by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. That number is misleading, too, since it is buoyed by simulcast dog and thoroughbred racing; betting on live dog races decreased by 62 percent during the same period.

Although a state report on last year's racing season has not been released, the industry's total handle decreased by another 9.5 percent in 2004-2005, according to DPBR spokesperson Kristen Ploska.

Track owners, dog breeders and kennel operators say increased competition from the Florida Lottery, the Internet, Indian casinos and gambling boats unfairly threatens a historic industry that employed almost 5,000 Floridians last year and provided the state with nearly $25 million in total tax revenue.

The industry's critics say dog racing is on life support, and without generous tax breaks from the Florida legislature and new laws allowing additional gaming at the tracks, a sport marred by its cruel treatment toward animals would soon die a well-deserved death.

DOGHOUSE DEMOGRAPHICS The Sarasota Kennel Club is a good example of dog racing's changing fortunes. Despite rapid growth and healthy tourism along the Gulf Coast, the track has seen a significant decline in the amount of money wagered on live dog racing over the past 15 years.

Simulcast betting and a longer racing season have bolstered business during that time, but profits are decreasing. At the same time, expenses have risen dramatically because of the expanded schedule, says Jack Collins, the track's vice president and general manager. Collins' family has owned and operated the facility on Bradenton Road since his grandfather, Jerry Collins, bought it in 1944.

"Since 1988, the Florida Lottery has affected our business a great deal," says Collins. "We used to run in the summertime, to alternate with the track in Tampa and Derby Lane in St. Petersburg. Now, we have live racing five months a year during the winter, when tourists are here, and simulcast racing six days a week, year-round."

One problem leading to the track's dwindling profit margin is this region's changing demographics. Greyhound fans have tended to be older, and many of those who filled grandstands in the 1970s and '80s have died. As the region grows, the proportion of working-age adults increases and rising property values mean new residents are often wealthier than some of the retirees who attended races in the past.

Tourism has also changed since dog racing's heyday. Over the past few decades, visitors have become more interested in the area's cultural and ecological resources than in traditional Florida attractions like dog racing.

"We keep information on the track at the visitors' center, but it doesn't show up in our surveys, except maybe as trace," says Jennifer Egrie of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau. "In July and August we do get some calls about our horse-racing schedule, but we know those people are thinking of Saratoga, not Sarasota."

RUNAWAY COMPETITION Demographics and tourism may be changing, but Florida residents and tourists are gambling more than ever, says Collins.

"We stress the entertainment aspect of racing, that you can spend $20 over four or five hours here," he explains. "But now, people spend that $20 gambling at just about any gas station or convenience store. Plus, there are Indian casinos and gambling boats all over the state. You're competing against forms of gambling you can't compete with."

In a state where gambling has become so commonplace, dog-track operators are hamstrung with rules that aren't applied to the industry's competitors. Unlike pari-mutuels, the increasing number of Florida Indian casinos and gambling cruise ships are mostly untaxed and unregulated.

The state has made changes to help greyhound racing keep pace over the last 15 years. A series of tax breaks lowered the state's share of dog-track revenue from $67 million in 1994-1995 to just $15.6 million in 2003-2004. In the early 1990s, lawmakers also allowed simulcast betting at tracks. By 1996, low-stake poker rooms were added to the mix.

For Collins, the new laws have helped, but only to a point. The Sarasota track has investigated the possibility of opening a poker room in the past, but the reaction of local politicians has not been encouraging. Simulcast races help the track's total handle figures, but those numbers can be deceiving. Profits from simulcast wagers are split with the track where a race occurs and with the Florida horse track that holds simulcast rights.

"The poker rooms are doing OK, I think, and simulcasting is helping some, too," says Eric Wilson, who monitors the industry as president of the American Greyhound Track Operators Association. "But the way it is all structured impacts how much tracks actually take in. The changes have not been what the industry needs."

Many track owners, dog trainers and kennel operators hope that video-lottery terminals, or slot machines, will soon give dog racing a chance to compete with the state's casinos and gambling boats. A state referendum passed in 2004 allows voters in Broward and Dade counties to authorize slot machines at South Florida jai alai frontons, horse tracks and dog tracks. While Broward residents voted to allow the machines last spring, Dade voters defeated a similar referendum.

IMAGE PROBLEMS One problem slot machines won't solve is the bad reputation dog racing has acquired across the country. In recent decades, the sport has become a hot point for animal advocates who claim the industry is inherently abusive to greyhounds.

A series of well-publicized incidents over the last five years has made the public-relations problem particularly critical for Florida track operators. Activists attribute several recent outbreaks of kennel cough to overcrowded kennels; greyhounds from at least two Florida tracks tested positive for cocaine; and a kennel fire this past summer killed 17 dogs and injured scores more at a track in Bonita Springs.

"Those kinds of isolated incidents happen but I don't think they necessarily warrant outlawing an industry," says Carey Theil, president of GREY2K USA, an organization that works to build public awareness of cruelty toward greyhounds. "What I believe, and what I think most people believe, is that keeping dogs in a cage for 18 or 20 hours a day is cruel, that killing thousands of dogs when they are no longer profitable is cruel. People are becoming more aware of the nature of dog racing."

"Most of that is blown way out of proportion," says Jim Abernathy, a Sarasota resident who has been breeding, training and racing greyhounds since the 1960s. "The great majority of animals find good homes, and you only hear about the ones that are abused. Of course there are people who don't belong in dog racing, but for the most part you have to love the dogs to be in this business, because the money isn't as good as it should be."

While track owners often note that kennel operators and trainers are responsible for the well-being of their animals, owners like Collins have made a commitment to improving the welfare of greyhounds and cleaning up dog racing's image, says Wilson. "That's one of the big goals of our industry right now, to make sure the treatment and welfare of greyhounds is where it should be. We're working very hard with the National Greyhound Association and other groups to reach that goal."

Florida tracks all contribute to national greyhound welfare programs and sponsor on-site adoption programs that have placed more than 1,700 dogs in private homes as pets. The Sarasota track has had a successful adoption program in place for more than seven years.

"The track has been very helpful placing dogs since the start," says Nancy Coffee, a track employee who helps coordinate the adoption program. "We're careful about who they go to, matching each dog to an owner, but we've placed every one that's been given to us."

Will slots save greyhound racing?

When Florida voters passed a 2004 constitutional amendment allowing Miami-Dade and Broward county voters to authorize slot machines in South Florida racetracks and jai alai frontons, greyhound breeders and kennel operators hoped a possible $1 billion annual windfall could lead to revitalizing the dog-racing industry.

Last March Broward residents voted to allow slot machines, while Miami-Dade voters defeated a similar referendum. State lawmakers have yet to pass legislation taxing and distributing slot machine profits, and the uncertainty has left breeders and kennel owners hanging.

"The tracks have put in card rooms and simulcasting, thinking that would help us," says Jim Abernathy, a longtime greyhound breeder and trainer from Sarasota. "But most people who play cards or watch horses don't cross over. We're hoping to get a bill passed so the slot machines can subsidize the dogs."

Some track owners have lobbied against splitting profits with breeders, however. They argue that voters approved slot machines on the promise that a portion of new revenue would be earmarked for education. And Fred Havenick, operator of Flagler Greyhound Track in Miami and a proponent of the slot-machine measure, says allowing the machines at pari-mutuels is more about fair play than saving a struggling sport.

"The market is much more interested in slot machines than simulcasting or live racing," says Havenick. "It's going on in Florida already, at the Indian casinos and on the boats, so we need to take the blinders off and either tax it and regulate it or shut it all down. We're in the gaming business and everyone should have a level playing field."

Since slot machines were introduced at West Virginia tracks in the mid-1990s, large crowds have flocked to "racinos" like Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center. All the new business has allowed expansion at the center, including a 90,000-square-foot casino with 2,400 slot machines, six restaurants and a 151-room hotel. The facility may resemble a Las Vegas-style casino more than a racetrack, but all the growth has helped dog racing survive in the state.

"The machines have done very well in places like West Virginia," says Eric Wilson, president of the American Greyhound Track Operators Association. "They not only improve a track's bottom line, they can assist in propping up money for greyhound owners, which benefits racing."

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