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Dog days of Florida come to an end, with total demise of U.S. greyhound racing within sight

Man's best friend ran one last time at Palm Beach Kennel Club on New Year's Eve, more than two years after state voters axed the sport.
Image: Dogs chase a mechanical lure during the final program of
Dogs chase a mechanical lure during the final program of greyhound races at Derby Lane, in St Petersburg, Fl., on Dec 27, 2020.Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The dog racing "mecca" of Florida ran its final greyhound contests Thursday night as the gambling mainstay strides closer to its potential demise across America.

The clock struck midnight when a speedy pooch named Bug Brush crossed the finish line to win the final race at Palm Beach Kennel Club in West Palm Beach and brought a curtain on the sport in Florida.

A little more than 25 months ago, state voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 13, outlawing greyhound races, starting in 2021, and issuing what could amount to a national death sentence for the century-old U.S. sport.

With the state now out of the greyhound-running business, four tracks in three states — West Virginia, Arkansas and Iowa — are left still chasing rabbits.

When Amendment 13 passed in 2018, Florida had 11 of America's 17 dog tracks, which were spread out across six states. Earlier this year, tracks in Texas and Alabama went out of business.

"Florida was the mecca (of dog racing), the base, the largest state with the most tracks," Humane Society Florida Director Kate MacFall told NBC News recently, celebrating her state's role in the sport's decline. "Now this industry has withered."

Jim Gartland, executive director of the dog racing industry’s umbrella group, the National Greyhound Association, admitted he sees a day when greyhounds will no longer run in America.

"I hate to say it, I hate to even think about it," Gartland said. "It may be five years down the road, it may be 10 years down the road, but it's definitely a possibility."

The next-to-last standing Florida track, Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, closed up shop on Sunday.

As the action came to a close late Thursday night, Frank Sinatra's timeless hit "My Way" played at Palm Beach Kennel Club, as Bug Brush and seven other greyhounds paraded to the starting box of the 545-yard, $10,000 "Long Run Championship."

Bug Brush went wire-to-wire to end 88 years of racing at the West Palm Beach track.

“It’s horrible. It’s very sad," Gartland said of the sport's decline. "I’ve had people in this industry I’ve watched cry over these past couple of months."

In the late 1980s, there were more than 60 dog tracks in operation in the U.S., with action in Connecticut, Colorado, Arizona, Wisconsin, Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Oregon, Vermont and New Mexico, according to the association.

"It’s no secret, dog racing has been on the decline for several years now," said Palm Beach Kennel Club president Patrick Rooney Jr., whose family has owned the track since 1969. "Dog racing was not long for this world."

Rooney, the grandson of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney and nephew of former U.S. ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney, said changing views on animal rights has put greyhound racing on the fast track to extinction.

Image: Racing fans watch as greyhounds cross the finishing line
Racing fans watch as greyhounds cross the finishing line during the final program of greyhound races at Derby Lane, in St Petersburg, Fl., on Dec 27, 2020.Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Animal rights activists have long opposed greyhound racing, saying the dogs live in cramped quarters and suffer from difficult work conditions.

"Anything with an animal component to it is going to have a difficult time surviving in this society that we are becoming," said Rooney, theorizing that dog racing, horse racing and the rodeo could someday go the way of the circus. "We are being more sensitive to, whether real or imagined, the feelings of animals and how they're treated."

With Florida's ban now in place, there are laws on the books in 41 states against the sport, according to Christine Dorchak, co-founder of the anti-racing group GREY2K.

Not yet satisfied with the sport's near-comatose state, Dorchak said her group is pushing for federal legislation against greyhound racing that she insists has bi-partisan support.

Even without the work of animal activists like GREY2K, the Humane Society and the late singer Doris Day, dog racing has been losing at the bottom line with gamblers for years.

  • In Florida, dog tracks fetched $135.9 million in wagers in fiscal year 2019-20, a 29-percent drop from the $191.5 million bet in the previous 12 months. It was the eighth consecutive year of greyhound wagering on the decline. Florida dog tracks took in $265 million in bets in 2011-12, almost double the action they took in during the most recently completed term.
  • With Florida soon to be gone from the dog-race world, West Virginia is poised to become the nation's leading greyhound jurisdiction. The Mountaineer State accepted $124.8 million in wagers at its two dog tracks in 2019.
  • In Iowa, the state's lone dog track took in $2.3 million in live and simulcast greyhound action through the end of November this year. That's on pace for a third consecutive year of decline.
  • In Arkansas, there was $14.2 million in live wagers on dog racing in 2019, the lowest handle in 10 years of data provided by that state's Department of Finance and Administration. That 2019 figure also marked the third consecutive year of decline.

It's believed Arkansas and Iowa could soon be done with the sport.

Operators of Southland Casino Racing, in West Memphis, Arkansas, have already said they'll stop running by Dec. 31 2022. A subsidy to the Iowa greyhound industry sunsets at the end of 2022, which could finish dog racing two years from now in the Hawkeye State.

Dog racing's demise comes as Americans — at least pre-coronavirus — gamble more than ever before.

U.S. commercial gambling halls and tribal casinos recorded $78.2 billion in 2019 gaming revenue, according to data from the American Gaming Association and the National Indian Gaming Commission. That's compared to $60.8 billion in 2009 revenue and $32 billion in 1999.

Yet dog racing operators have failed to cash in on this fast-growing pie of gambling revenue.

Even state lotteries, action predicated on numbered balls falling through curved tubes, are raking in big bucks as dog racing declines.

The Mega Millions game sold $2.6 billion in tickets in 45 states, Washington D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands in fiscal year 2019-20. That's a monumental jump from the $434 million sold in 1996-97 when Mega's predecessor, The Big Game, had sales of $434 million in just six states.

Dog tracks haven't been able to attract new customers or even found ways to attach to other, more profitable ventures, said Brett Abarbanel, director of research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' International Gaming Institute.

She cited the thoroughbred track at Del Mar for its success in pairing up horse racing with concerts and craft beer festivals in creative ways to keep the sport relevant near San Diego.

"Dog racing, as a whole, hasn't adapted much to new entertainment options," Abarbanel said. "Even compared to horse racing, which has had similar struggles to attract new customers, dog tracks have not managed major change."

Unlike football, baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer, where the ball or puck is in constant motion, greyhounds are run at 15-minute intervals — breaks in action that could bore potential dog racing fans, according to the National Greyhound Association's Gartland.

"The older, slower sports are starting to be pushed out, baseball in particular," he said. "Maybe that's the stigma that greyhound racing has as well? It's old. It's done. It's seen its time."