Greyhound racing goes to the dog

12 comments by DONNA BALANCIA – Oct. 28, 2008 07:17 AM
Florida Today

When New Yorker Robert Seilowitz used to vacation in Florida, he made it a regular habit to hit the dog track in Miami.

“Going to bet the dogs was something you had to do when you went to Florida,” said Seilowitz, a retired store owner from Manhasset. “Now if I go, there are only a handful of other people there. It’s sad to see what happened to the dogs.”

Greyhound races and the betting that goes with them, long considered a staple in the Sunshine State, are waning as other forms of gambling – particularly virtual and real-life card rooms – grow. Higher fuel prices and the lagging economy also have hit dog racing, and there continues to be a strong undercurrent of people opposed to the idea of racing dogs.

For now, industry watchers say, the only thing that saves the sport in Florida is long-standing political ties and a little sentimentality.

The latest battleground is Massachusetts, where voters are being asked to decide whether to ban the running of dogs. But across the United States, the legions of blue-collar fans the dog-racing industry relied on have been lured away by casinos, lotteries, online gambling and other forms of betting.

“It’s certainly changing,” Gary Guccione, executive director of the National Greyhound Association, told The Associated Press. “It has downsized in recent years. We’ve seen a decrease in the number of tracks and dogs being bred.”

In the 1980s, there were more than 50,000 greyhounds bred each year to race at about 60 tracks nationwide, Guccione said. This year, the number of dogs will drop to under 20,000 and the number of tracks has been cut almost in half.

The decline has led dog owners to merely go through the motions rather than foster and promote the greyhound racing business.

In Florida, pari-mutuel wagering, which includes poker, broadcast closed-circuit races, jai alai and other products, has been faring comparatively well in a tough economy. But there are high maintenance costs involved in dog racing.

The costs include fuel for tractors that maintain the track, judges in the booth and lead-outs for the dogs. Full-time veterinarians and the cost of dog adoption programs are also expensive.

Those expenses have ballooned by 15 percent in the last year and a half, said Pat Biddix, general manager of the Melbourne (Fla.) Greyhound Park.

A lot of greyhound parks may want to move away from dogs and more into other pari-mutuel wagering, but stick with the dogs for several reasons.

“People want fast action, especially the young people,” said Rob Christmas, assistant general manager and director of racing at Melbourne Greyhound Park. “They don’t want to wait a half an hour to place a $2 bet. … They get fast action in poker and they get fast action on the Inter Track Wagering, where they can bet several races at a time.”

Also, in Florida, poker is only allowed at those facilities where dogs race.

“What’s keeping the tracks in business and the jai alai frontons in business are the poker rooms,” said Bob Jarvis, professor of gambling law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.

In addition, although gambling is changing in Florida, changes in regulations are traditionally slow in coming.

“They’re going to keep passing Band-Aid’ legislation to increase the stakes or the payouts,” Jarvis said. “Every few years, the tracks will rally the Legislature and say, If you don’t do something for us, that’s it.’ Florida has always done gambling by piecemeal.”

Another factor that keeps dog racing alive is the sport’s long history and dog-breeders’ connections in the state legislature, Jarvis said. Many of the dog-breeders are third and fourth generation, and they are passionate, he said.

So for now, Biddix will keep the dogs running in Melbourne.

“Dog racing is a thing of the past,” he said. “Today you can sit in your pajamas at the computer with a cup of coffee and you can gamble on any race in the country. It’s a changing world.”

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