Dog Tracks Cornered by Wagering Woes, Racing Foes

by Associated Press  on Wednesday, Jul. 9, 2014 8:32 am  

Southland Park in West Memphis.

Two months ago, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed a bill that will shutter one of the state's two tracks by 2016.

Florida, which in 1931 was the first state to legalize wagering on greyhound racing, opted against a measure in its most recent legislative session that would have allowed tracks to keep poker and slots and ditch the racing. The plan, which proponents hope to revive in the session next year, is seen as an expansion of gambling and faces opposition from gambling opponents and other competitors.

The "decoupling" movement has created an odd alliance between racetrack casino operators, who see the races as a burden, and animal rights groups out to end greyhound racing altogether, much as they succeeded in outlawing cockfighting several years ago.

"When decoupling passes, it will lead to a slow and gradual end" of the industry, said Carey Theil, executive director of the anti-racing group Grey2K USA.

Dog racing's troubles also could be a preview of things to come 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, an industry clearinghouse.

Though stronger financially than dog racing, horse racing is also far more expensive to stage, and only a handful of the biggest tracks are profitable without casinos to support them.

Some within the horse racing industry see decoupling laws as a threat to their own sport.

"They could set a dangerous precedent for all breeds of racing," said Lonny Powell, the CEO of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association, who worked for years as a regulator of dog races.

Melbourne Greyhound Park, a smaller track in central Florida, sees the biggest crowd each year during the Kentucky Derby, when around 3,000 patrons turn up to watch the simulcast screens and place bets on the horses.

Cashing in on those rare events is not enough for track operators. Promotional gimmicks such as "Doggy Dinner Theater" and races with dogs named for celebrities have not worked, said Havenick, the Miami track owner.

Reducing the number of races might help make them special events again, he suggested.

The death of dog racing would be the end of "a beautiful show," said Duke Adkinson, a longtime fan who came to Flagler — now part of Magic City Casino — with his preteen grandson Dillon to instill in him the love for the races.

"Everyone who has not seen it live needs to come at least once if they like greyhounds," Adkinson said, surrounded by empty seats and aging faces.

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