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BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. — On a balmy December afternoon in southwestern Florida, eight greyhounds in colored jerseys bolted out of a starting gate, chasing a mechanical rabbit.
This tradition dates back decades in Florida, but on this day, the grandstands — built for 10,000 — were nearly empty.
What used to be a glamorous, lucrative sport has become a money-losing proposition that brings a black eye from animal-welfare groups.
“This is an industry that is dying in Florida and all over the country, and it’s dying because of competition from other forms of gambling,” said Carey Theil, an anti-greyhound racing activist and the executive director of Grey2K, a nonprofit group that campaigns to put an end to dog racing in the seven states where it remains legal. “It’s dying because of concerns about the way dogs are treated in this industry.”
He said that racing greyhounds spend about 22 hours a day in their cages — a life of confinement for thousands of dogs. Hundreds are injured, sometimes horrifically, forced into retirement and threatened with being put down if a new home cannot be found.
Even more shocking, state records obtained by “America Tonight” show that on average, one racing greyhound dies at a Florida track every three days.
Theil said most of those deaths are due to serious injuries. “We know based on data from other states that a lot of the greyhounds in this industry suffer broken legs,” he said. “Other injuries include heart attack, paralysis. Dogs are electrocuted when they fall into the lure.”
Florida state Sen. Maria Sachs wants to stop greyhound racing, which she calls an “inhumane way of gambling.” She said she conducted an investigation into how the dogs are treated.
“Is it really true that the dogs are kept in small kennels? Is it true that they’re kept in vans that are not air conditioned? Is it true that they are confined for many hours during the day?” she said. “And the answer? The answer is it’s true.” She added, “The people of Florida, once they find out what really goes on behind the tracks, behind the lights, behind the excitement, they’re going to say, ‘Enough. This is not who we are as a people.’”
The decline of the sport
Those who argue for an end to dog racing on humane grounds have some unlikely allies: dog track owners. Izzy Havenick is one owner who wants to at least reduce the number of dog races. He and his family own the Naples–Fort Myers Greyhound Track and Poker Room, a business his grandfather started. Havenick has heard the criticism — and watched the decline of the sport.
He said he keeps the track going because the poker business at his facility is profitable. “The state of Florida law mandates that we continue to run the dogs in order to keep the poker room open,” he said. “We’re legally obliged to keep a business operating that loses $2.5 million a year.”
A 1997 Florida law meant to keep dog breeders and trainers in business mandates that track owners like Havenick run races if they want to keep their lucrative poker rooms.
“The poker law says you have to run 90 percent of the amount of races you ran in 1996,” he said. “Well, 20 years ago, this track was packed. It was a great source of entertainment. Twenty years … the world has changed drastically.”
At his Naples track alone, there are 3,200 races every season — each one a money loser, each one potentially harmful to a dog.
Betting on greyhounds has fallen by more than half in Florida over the past decade. The dog races now compete for the attention of a generation that came of age with the Internet. “Most people my age and younger have no interest in going to some facility and watching an animal run around in a circle,” Havenick said.
Sachs said that the state of Florida loses money on greyhound racing, spending $1.8 million more to regulate the industry than it receives in tax revenues. “We, as a state government, should not be putting money into a sport that is actually inhumane and is losing revenue,” she said.
‘The state of Florida law mandates that we continue to run the dogs in order to keep the poker room open. We’re legally obliged to keep a business operating that loses $2.5 million a year.’
greyhound track and poker room owner
Havenick said he’d like to offer a much more limited greyhound racing schedule. But he can’t unless the state legislature passes a law that would cut the link between dog races and poker rooms.
That’s an idea Sachs supports. “If we decouple, it will go the way of any other business,” she said. “If it’s a viable business, it will succeed and flourish. And if it’s not a viable business, then it will die. Everybody knows in the state that greyhound racing is not a viable business.”
But the decoupling law has come before the legislature five times and failed each time. Despite bipartisan support, there are powerful forces with deep pockets lined up against it.
Former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp is fighting for one group that opposes decoupling: the people who own and train the dogs. The track owners, he said, shouldn’t be so quick to throw the dog owners under the bus.
“They’ve had a lot of benefits of having a monopoly in this arena and made billions of dollars,” he said of the track owners. “If they don’t want to do it anymore, fine. Relinquish the license. Put it out to bid.”
‘We just can’t compete’
But the dogs, their owners and even the track owners are bit players in this unfolding fight over the much larger debate concerning the expansion of gambling. It’s a debate in which there is lots of money, lots of influence and a state government so dysfunctional that it can’t come to grips with the larger question or even agree how to regulate gambling.
First up in the influence parade are the horse owners and racetrack owners who worry that if the dogs go away, then horse racing might be next. In Florida thoroughbred racing is a billion-dollar business.
Then there’s the very powerful Seminole Tribe, which controls gambling in North and Central Florida, thanks in large part to a deal it cut with the state that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The Seminoles don’t want track owners shutting down dog races and competing with them by expanding into casinos with slot machines.
If we decouple, it will go the way of any other business. If it’s a viable business, it will succeed and flourish. And if it’s not a viable business, then it will die. Everybody knows in the state that greyhound racing is not a viable business.
Florida state senator
Havenick said he and other track owners are simply outgunned by big-money players. “Everyone expects us to play at a level of an opponent that we just can’t compete with,” he said, adding that the Seminoles are the largest gambling interest in Florida and one of the three largest in the world. “If the Seminole Tribe is an NFL team, we’re maybe a high school JV football team. We just can’t compete at the same level.”
He said the Seminoles are “probably the biggest impediment in the road” to legislation. Kottkamp said the greed is spread out among the relevant players.
“Every time these gaming bills come up in Tallahassee, it almost collapses from the weight of greed,” Kottkamp said. “People want more, more, more, and they’re making a heck of a lot of it already.”
When legislators in Tallahassee take up the issue, they’ll be facing a phalanx of lobbyists, including those representing casino owners from Las Vegas and beyond, who are also looking for a piece of the very rich gambling pie.
And the dogs? They’re at the back of the pack. The decoupling bill faces an uphill fight, and Florida’s greyhounds will most likely be running all out again and again.
Sachs said inaction on dog racing will hurt Florida’s reputation — and more.
“You’re going to have more deaths of animals,” she said.