Dog Days Are Over

The Last Days of the Sarasota Kennel Club

The racing greyhounds at the Sarasota Kennel Club are gone, and their trainers have quietly left the track, too.

By Isaac Eger November 4, 2019 Published in the November 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

The sun hadn’t yet risen over the Sarasota Kennel Club, and Deb Linn was wrist deep in 100 pounds of bloody meat. She’d been up since 4:30 a.m., when she made the 30-minute commute south from Ellenton. Linn was 18 years old when she first started working with greyhounds in her home state of Wisconsin. Now 50, she stood over a fiberglass trough inside her kennel, mixing white powdered vitamins into raw beef for her dogs’ breakfast. I could make out thin white lines on her tanned arms, marks from where the dogs had scratched her over the years. The dogs were beside themselves in anticipation of food, filling the room with their barking and rapping at the crates with their paws, but it was much quieter than usual. Just a few weeks ago Linn had 102 dogs in her kennel. Now there were half as many. By tomorrow, there would be no dogs.

It was May 4, 2019, the morning of the last race.

“My main thing is to get through today,” Linn said. “Doing the dogs just takes up all my time and I can’t even plan a future or take college classes until we’re done here.” The barking got louder, and she softly told the dogs to hush, the food was coming. “It’s not a job,” she said, heaping gobs of meat into a bowl on a measuring weight. “It’s my life; it’s all I know. I have no idea what I’m gonna do.”

Longtime trainer Deb Linn tends to her dogs in the kennel early one morning. 

Image: Isaac Eger

Back in November 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 13 with an overwhelming 69 percent of the vote. The amendment called for the banning of all dog racing in the state by the end of 2020. Florida was the sport’s last great refuge. Forty states already had laws prohibiting dog racing, and of the 17 tracks left in the United States, 11 of them are in Florida. The sport is now forbidden by the Florida Constitution, more or less putting an end to dog racing in the United States.

The protracted battle between animal rights activists and the dog racing industry was over, and it appeared the side of righteousness had prevailed. Grey2K USA Worldwide, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, led the charge along with groups like the Humane Society and PETA. They spent more than $3 million in their campaign for Amendment 13. The dog racing industry put up just over half a million dollars to fight it. Commercials in support of the amendment showed sad-eyed dogs locked behind steel grates, backed by ominous string music. The dog racing industry claimed allegations of abuse were lies made up by crooked nonprofits and argued that abruptly dissolving dog racing would overload adoption agencies and put the dogs at risk of euthanasia. Their arguments failed.

The new law ends a part of Florida history, the state where dog racing has its deepest roots. But it’s also the end of a way of life—particularly for the people who work in the kennels, like Linn, and the thousands of other low-income workers who know no other profession.

I grew up in Sarasota, just a couple miles south of the track, but not once did I go see the dogs. The track always seemed seedy and outdated, and the first time I set foot inside the Sarasota Kennel Club was when I followed my more adventurous friends to play Texas Hold’em.

More than a decade later and a month before the last race, I returned to find out what remained. Linn led me to the kennels to meet her dogs early one morning while she turned them out, cleaned their bedding and hung plastic muzzles on the crates for the matinee races. Like most trainers, Linn does not own the dogs. They are owned by investors throughout the country. She’s an independent contractor hired to take care of the dogs. 

There were 11 kennels behind the track, concrete structures about the size of modest two-bedroom bungalows, holding a total of 650 to 750 dogs. Outside of each kennel was a sandy area, a turn-out pen, bordered with chain-link fencing where the dogs stretched their legs and went to the bathroom. The first thing I noticed was the smell, a sharp mixture of ammonia and warm dog oils. None of the people in the kennel noticed it anymore. Linn let the dogs out, females first. They bounded out of their crates, ears back, tongues lolling, and took turns pouncing on me. Greyhounds are weird-looking dogs, all sinew and bone with short shiny coats clinging tightly to their long bodies. They come in a variety of colors and patterns: white, black and brindle, or a patchy mix.

The dogs start racing at around 18 months old. Some will race until they’re 6. Though the males are considerably bigger than the females, the genders compete against each other. I asked Linn if that gave the males a competitive edge.

“No, not really,” she said. “It usually comes down to who has the most heart.”

She led me outside so she could smoke a Pall Mall Black while she washed the dogs’ bedding; she’d never smoke in the kennel around the dogs. She turned on a hose and dipped the bedding into a barrel filled with soap. I asked her what she’ll miss the most. “The dogs,” she said. “Greatest dogs you will ever meet. I wouldn’t have any other breed.” She turned to me and asked, “Did those dogs look abused to you?”

I said no.

“They love to run. If a dog got out of one of our buildings, they’d come right back to the track. You can’t make a dog run. These dogs have had it in their DNA since ancient Egypt. They’re born to run.”

I was embarrassed to tell Linn that I voted for Amendment 13.

Muzzled dogs turned out in a pen behind the kennels.

Image: Isaac Eger 

Fans of the greyhound claim it’s the oldest breed of dog. They’ll tell you the first evidence of the greyhound can be found on hieroglyphs in the ancient Egyptian Tomb of Aten, who lived sometime between 2900 and 2751 B.C. They’ll say the head of the god Anubis is a not a jackal, but a greyhound. And that heart-wrenching passage in the Odyssey where Odysseus returns home to Ithaca in disguise and is only recognized by his loyal dog, Argus, who wags his tail at the sight of his old master and immediately dies? That was a greyhound, too. The Spanish introduced the first greyhounds to America during their conquest of the New World. That the dogs were used to hunt down and torture Indians is left out of most histories.

The modern racing greyhound appears in 17th-century England with the sport of coursing. Coursing sets two greyhounds after a live hare that’s been given a head start. You could bet on either the dogs or the hare. This sport democratized the greyhound as an affordable alternative to the more expensive sport of fox and stag hunting, which was done on horseback by British elite.

It wasn’t until 1905 that the sport appeared in America, due to the efforts of a South Dakotan businessman named Owen Patrick Smith. He believed the sport’s slaughter of a live rabbit at the end of the race by the dogs was too cruel, so in 1910 he patented the “inanimate hare conveyer,” a trolley that carried a stuffed rabbit around a track. In 1919, Smith displayed his invention on the first commercial dog track in Emeryville, California. The venture was popular, but lost money. It wasn’t until Smith brought the sport to Florida that it hit its stride.

The first track in Florida was built in 1922 in Humbuggus (today known as Hialeah). Tracks popped up all over the state—St. Petersburg in 1925, Miami in 1926, Miami Beach and Orlando in 1927, Sarasota in 1929. The success of the sport in Florida likely had something to do with the fact that the state was a nexus for organized crime during Prohibition. Dog racing became associated with mobsters, and betting on the dogs was illegal throughout the decade. But once Florida politicians deduced that revenue from dog racing could add to the state’s Great Depression-ravaged coffers, pari-mutuel betting was legalized in 1931.

In 1944, the Sarasota track burned down, and a car salesman and sheriff’s officer named Jerry Collins bought the place for $5,005 worth of back taxes. Collins was a model of the enterprising entrepreneur of the early 20th century. He had moved to Sarasota in 1919, and then became a sheriff in Fort Myers, where he was a bodyguard for Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. He was a gambler, too, and he frequented the tracks in Tampa and St. Petersburg. At one point he owned 12 tracks throughout the country.

Now Collins’s grandson, Jack Collins Jr., owns the Sarasota Kennel Club. He was at the track nearly every day I visited, sitting in a dark corner of the poker room bar, sipping bottled water. Under the new law the place could have stayed open until Dec. 31, 2020, but Collins Jr., 55, decided to rip off the band-aid. “The only weird part is knowing you’ve done it for 75 years, and after this year you won’t,” he said. “Back in the ’80s, live racing could bring in a million a day here. For the past few years, we were lucky if we got $200,000.”

Collins Jr. says the business changed when the state changed the lottery laws in 1986.  “Before that, we were the only place where you could gamble legally,” he says. “Once the lottery came in, it took a lot of money out of circulation.”

But dog racing had been declining in popularity around the country for three decades. In 1991, the total amount of money gambled on dog races in the U.S. was $3.5 billion. By 2014, it had dropped to $500 million. In Florida, between 2007 and 2017, the amount wagered dropped from $406 million to $226 million. During that same period, card table receipts increased from $91 million to $157 million.

For a while, dog racing was kept on life support by a 1997 state law meant to reduce the number of gambling facilities in the state. The new law required card-room licenses to be tethered to existing pari-mutuel betting facilities—jai alai, horse tracks and dog racing. To make matters more complicated, the legislature tacked on the “90 percent rule.” That meant that in order to keep the profitable poker tables, the tracks had to run at least 90 percent of the live races they ran in 1996. When Amendment 13 passed, the track owners got to keep the cards and get rid of the money-draining races.

“Personally, I’d hate to say it, but for us owners, we are going to be financially better off, no doubt,” Collins Jr. told me. Collins employs more than 300 people at the track. The vote will cut that down to 60.

Jorja Alvarez gives one of her dogs a final kiss before the track closes for good. 

Image: Isaac Eger

Don’t know what these kids are gonna do,” James Avery, the head of maintenance, said from his office at the track. He started working here in 1996, and his office was well-worn. He had a lit cigarette in his hand and a flyswatter next to the ashtray. “Trying to steer them in the right direction,” he said.

The Sarasota Kennel Club is located not far from Newtown, a historically black community, and has employed many black residents over the years. Avery is black. Nearly all the lead outs are young black men. Their job is to walk the dogs from the weighing station to the box and do little things in between.

“It keeps us out of trouble,” said 22-year-old Atmar Washington. “I’ve been here four years and I’d still work here if they weren’t closing down. We might end up trappin’. Shit, I dunno.”

It was Khron Turner’s third year working here, and he wasn’t sure where he’d go next. “Maybe McDonald’s. The dogs are more fun, though,” he said.

Willy Williams drove the tractor over the track’s dirt to smooth it out between races. He’s 31 and has been at the track for more than 14 years. He started as a lead out. “I’m sad, but not surprised,” he said, adding that he’ll miss the dogs.

I went back to Avery’s office. He told me the owners should have stopped breeding dogs and let the rest race out. He was pretty sure he’d get to keep his job. “I’m the only one who knows where everything is in the whole damn building,” he said.

Nobody in the kennels would receive a severance. As independent contractors, they also don’t have pensions or 401(k)s. No health care, either. Linn invested all she made back into the dogs—into the equipment, into the custom trailer that ferried the dogs from track to track. “Who’s gonna wanna buy this stuff now?” she asked. A roll-up dumpster, where most of the trainers’ things would eventually end up, sat parked next to the kennels.

It’s hard to imagine money was ever a motivating factor for the trainers, because the money’s no good. They worked 80-hour weeks and might make $30,000 in a season before covering their own feed and vet bills. Many of the trainers were a paycheck away from being homeless. They were paid on a point system, in which only the top four dogs in a race of eight made money. Though the trainers took pride in their dogs’ success and liked the cash, they didn’t root against each other.

“The dogs are in competition with each other, not us,” said Crystal Zwart. She’s 35 and has worked at dog tracks since she was a 13-year-old in Connecticut. “We are a family. A dysfunctional family.”

Zwart invited me to attend the goodbye BBQ that she and the other trainers put on a week before the last race. They had it under the covered area by the track where trainers normally waited for the dogs during matinee races. Zwart worked the grill wearing a pink shirt that said I Make This Shirt Look Good. Similar novelty T-shirts were everywhere, and the people wearing them tended to be smoking Pall Malls.

The BBQ was served out of the back of a truck where fried tacos, mac ‘n’ cheese, way-too-sweet sangria, bacon ranch dip, pulled pork and taquitos warmed in the sun. People filled their plates and got tipsy in between picking up dogs after races. All of this unfolded under a sign that read, “NO SMOKING, NO BEVERAGES, NO FOOD—DEPT. OF BUS. REGULATION.”

I watched the dogs alongside the trainers from the southern point of the track. Reinvesting in a dying sport isn’t good business, so the track was run down and rusted. Many of the fences were broken. The mechanical lure, which started right in front of us, was a plush toy in the shape of a white bone made dirty from all the rain and mud. Blue sparks sprayed off the track as the lure approached the boxes and the dogs yelped in excitement. The announcer said, “Heeeeerreeee’s Swifty!”

The gates opened and out the dogs flew. Only cheetahs accelerate faster than greyhounds. The dogs hit speeds of up to 42 miles per hour, and the dirt kicked up like water in a boat’s wake. They usually finish the three-eighths of a mile in under 30 seconds and run tight, their haunches occasionally grazing one another.

“C’mon, Delly, push these mother****ers out of the way!” a trainer yelled. The race finished and the results were displayed on the tote board over the track. The trainers rushed over to pick up their dogs as they all surrounded the lure and wagged their tails. The dogs were gasping for air and they leaned against their trainers’ legs for support as their hind legs quivered. “The dogs know when they got that bunny,” a trainer said. “They’ve got a different attitude.”

A bettor awaits results at the Sarasota Kennel Club.

Image: Isaac Eger

The tone of the conversation at the BBQ alternated between nostalgia and indignation. “We’re little gnats compared to horse people,” trainer Doug McElwee said, sitting cross-legged in the waiting pen. He mentioned all the horses dying at tracks across the country and how many of them get sold to meatpacking plants in other countries, but he doubted horse racing will be banned any time soon. “There’s too much money. We’re the little guys and they threw us to the wolves,” he said.

“They just told lies, ridiculous stories,” Zwart added.

I asked her what lies.

“That they’re in cages 23 hours a day. Or that we use cattle prods at the box so that they’ll break out faster. That we’ll kill ’em if they don’t run fast enough.”

“Why would we put a dog down with so many adoption groups?” Linn added. “The business has changed. Years ago, some of those things did happen, and we’ll admit it. But the bad apples? They’re gone.”

McElwee told a story about a trainer who died in his dogs’ turn-out pen at the Sarasota Kennel Club. He was in his late 40s or early 50s, no one knew for sure, but they all agreed he was a bit young to die. It was an aneurysm, they think. But everyone seemed envious of the death. To die with the dogs.

Jorja Alvarez was the newest to the track life, but the end hurt her all the same. Two of her dogs’ kennel numbers are tattooed on the back of her neck. “I was 32 when I fell in love with greyhounds,” Alvarez said. “I first saw them at an adoption agency meet-and-greet. Then I started fostering them on a 14-acre farm in Michigan. I had 34 dogs at one point.” As she spoke, she wiped the boogers from her dogs’ eyes and kissed them on the forehead.

I noticed that more women than men were working in the kennels. Zwart told me it used to be a man’s sport. “Back in the day the kennel people were all men and the adoption people were all women,” she said. “Then the women from the adoption groups started taking over the kennel jobs.” She figured it was because all the old-timers who kept the women away retired or died. I asked Linn if women were more compassionate than the men. “No,” she said. It just so happened that the old-timers were all farmers and viewed dogs as a means to an end. Today, she said, the people who work with the dogs treat them like children.

On a Friday evening, just one day before the last races at the Sarasota Kennel Club, the No. 6 dog stumbled and broke its leg. It was a compound fracture, and the kennel’s resident vet put the dog down on the spot. Since 2013, when the state began requiring dog tracks to officially report greyhound deaths, 485 have been recorded. Not so long ago, things were much worse.

Back in 2002, on an 18-acre junkyard in Alabama near the Panhandle, Robert L. Rhodes was arrested by state police. Authorities had uncovered a mass grave of greyhound corpses. Over a period of 10 years, the 68-year-old Rhodes had killed somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 greyhounds with a bullet to the back of the head. He was a former security guard at the Pensacola Greyhound Track, and he said he was paid $10 for each greyhound he disposed of. “It was quick,” he told The Pensacola News Journal. “They didn’t feel a thing.” But the state attorney said many dogs were shot in the mouth or neck. One prosecutor referred to Rhodes’s property as “Dachau for dogs.” Rhodes faced up to 10 years in prison but died before ever setting foot in court.

“I just don’t think it’s our decision as human beings to force an animal to run for profit,” said Kelly Driscoll, a Grey2K board member who lives in Parrish. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, greyhounds love to run.’ Well, all dogs love to run.”

Driscoll first saw dog racing when she was 16. She’d gone to the tracks with her friends when she lived in New Hampshire. After the races, she asked trainers if she could see the dogs. “They were like, ‘Why do you wanna see the dogs?’” she recalls. “I told them so I could pet them. They were like, ‘No, no, we don’t allow people to see the dogs.’ I thought, what is going on here that they have to keep a secret?” She went home and searched online. There, she found sites that spoke of the abuse and poor conditions that the greyhounds endured.

She disputed the claims of the trainers I’d spoken to. “It’s common practice for the dogs to be euthanized at a young age if they’re not profitable for their owners,” she said. “I learned about the hormones the dogs are given, the over-breeding, the way they are kept in their cages, how the females are forced to make litter after litter after litter.”

I asked her about the dog racing industry’s claim that more than 97 percent of greyhounds go out for adoption. “That’s their statistic,” Driscoll said. “There are plenty of dogs that go unaccounted for. I like to do this math: If there’s 30,000 dogs racing in Florida [there are actually 3,700 active racing dogs and an unknown number of non-racing and breeding dogs] and 98 percent are adopted, that means that 2 percent are not. Why is it even acceptable for one dog to die for this?”

I asked her if she had any sympathy for the trainers, who claim to love the dogs as if they were their own and who now are out of a job and a community. Grey2K, she said, tried to get job retraining funds into the legislation, but it never materialized.

Spectators watch a race on the final night.

Image: Isaac Eger

The day of the last race coincided with the Kentucky Derby, so the track was crowded, but not for the dogs. Most everyone had their eyes on the television to see if their horse had won. Women wore plastic fascinator hats and the men wore seersucker shorts. Everyone wore flip-flops, Florida’s sartorial flourish.

Clark Isrel was there for the dogs. He was sitting in the bleachers with a program in one hand and a draft beer in the other. His face was gaunt and speckled with stubble around a thick, gray mustache. He’d been coming to the races with his father since he was 7. “Me and my daddy used to drive down here from Georgia with a big white Styrofoam cooler full of beer,” Isrel said. “My job was to hand him the beers while he was driving.” At 16, he made his first bet at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg with a fake ID. He’s made his living betting on dogs since then.

“When there’s no more racing,” Isrel said, “Florida can kiss my ass. And I love it down here, but if there’s no live dog racing, what’s the point?” He said he’d go to the five remaining states where dog racing was still legal. “Birmingham, West Virginia, Arkansas…I’m not being prejudiced, but that’s three back-ass states.”

He asked me if I had a dog. Before I could answer, he told me that the “PETA-heads” were going to take my dogs from me. “They’re radical fanatics,” Isrel said. “Just like ISIS.”

I asked Isrel if he was going to adopt a greyhound. “Well, that’s the thing, I don’t like dogs,” he said. “Can’t stand ’em. They slobber, they’re needy, I have no use for them whatsoever. I’m more of a cat person.”

Both the kennel folk and the activists insisted that the dogs would be safe. Some dogs will head to the tracks still running in Florida. Others will head to one of the five remaining tracks up North. Everyone at the Sarasota Kennel Club assured me that their dogs were spoken for.

So is the land where the track stands. New York-based Wakefield Development Partners hopes to develop an assisted living residence and 340 apartments there. Collins Jr. said he’ll have to find a new place for the poker room in early 2020. Somewhere cheap out east near the interstate, most likely. He wouldn’t tell me how much he got for the land, just that it was a “good number.” I looked up the value through the county property appraiser, and it was assessed at more than $8 million. Wakefield estimates its project between $75 and $100 million.

The lead outs walked the dogs to the box for the last race. I made a bet on the No. 7 dog, named JD Blosom, and put the ticket in my pocket. It was Alvarez’s dog. Back in the trainers’ area, everybody leaned up against the fence. More than a few were wiping away tears.

Alvarez’s dog won by 10 lengths.

There was no time to be funereal after the last race. The trainers had to show up the next day to turn out the remaining dogs. None of them were sure how they were going to get paid for the work because the dogs weren’t earning. I ran into Linn. I asked her if she was OK. “My truck broke down,” she said.

I reached out to give her a hug.

“I’m not a hugger,” she told me.

By the time the sun went down, the stands were empty. Ticket stubs were strewn across the ground and the vendors were packing up. The lights went off on the quiniela board for the last time. I never did cash my winning ticket.

Isaac Eger reports on sports in America and around the world. A longer version of this story ran first in Deadspin under the title “Dog Racing Died Without a Funeral.

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