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Proposal could hasten decline of greyhound racing in Florida, nation

Scenes like this may be fleeting at some Florida dog tracks, but a Derby Lane spokeswoman says the track will keep on racing.

Times (2006)

Scenes like this may be fleeting at some Florida dog tracks, but a Derby Lane spokeswoman says the track will keep on racing.

ST. PETERSBURG — The biggest draw at the 86-year-old Derby Lane used to be the dog track.

These days, it's the poker room.

Attendance at the oldest and one of the best-known greyhound tracks in the country has sagged in recent years.

"Poker is definitely more profitable here than our greyhounds," said Vera Rasnake, a spokeswoman for the track, which first offered poker in 1997. "We don't get the crowds that we got years ago."

In 2007, Tampa Greyhound Track closed its dog racing operation, many of its patrons siphoned by the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

A bill moving through the Legislature could hasten the decline of greyhound racing in Florida. The bill would allow dog track owners to stop racing dogs while keeping their cards and slot machines.

Some of Florida's 13 dog tracks already have indicated they would stop racing dogs, said state Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, who sponsored the bill in the House. A few large tracks, including Derby Lane, pledge to continue greyhound racing.

Despite opposition from breeders and traditional gambling opponents, the bill passed the House by a large margin Tuesday. The Senate passed it Friday, but made changes that will again require House approval.

"You have an industry that is in decline," Young said. "The public appetite for this form of entertainment is waning."

• • •

Greyhound racing in America is shrinking.

Since 1993, 10 states have banned live racing. About 40 tracks across the country have closed or stopped live racing, according to GREY2K USA, a national group pushing to end greyhound racing. Six of those tracks were in Florida.

"This is a dulling industry," said Carey M. Theil, the executive director of GREY2K USA. "Their clientele is an aging clientele that are not being replaced."

In many cases, he said, greyhound racing has become a sideshow to other forms of gambling. "People are not wagering on greyhound racing the way they used to," Theil said. "I think the move toward these facilities rebranding themselves has already begun."

The bill has united two traditionally opposing groups — dog tracks and their critics such as GREY2K, which object to greyhound racing on humane grounds.

Gary Guccione, executive director of the National Greyhound Association, does not contest that the industry is shrinking but says it isn't dead.

"There's still a demand and love and excitement for the sport out there," Guccione said. "I don't know that it's dying. Greyhound racing, in one form or another, has been around for thousands of years."

• • •

Florida is the epicenter for greyhound racing in the United States.

With 13 of the 23 tracks, any change here would have an enormous impact across the country.

"It will have a domino effect," Guccione said. "It's going to have a powerful effect on all of the greyhound owners and breeders and people who are involved in the industry."

He worries what will happen to all the greyhounds if the legislation becomes law.

Jack Cory, chief lobbyist for the Florida Greyhound Association, which represents dog owners, opposes the bill because he said it would mean 3,000 lost jobs and $50 million in lost economic impact and put 8,000 dogs at risk.

He doesn't think track owners will keep racing if the bill passes.

"They speak with a forked tongue," he said. "They wouldn't be up here lobbying this bill if that was true. I think they would reduce it drastically and that would cause the same result."

Revenue from greyhound racing in Florida has been plummeting for years. State taxes on live greyhound racing have dropped from $75 million in 1990 to $2.7 million last year, Young said.

Her bill, which means track owners won't have to run a minimum of 100 live events each year to qualify for other licenses, removes greyhound racing from government-sponsored life support. She said dog racing at many facilities is a losing proposition.

"Under this bill, and hopefully under this law, they would be able to determine what level (of racing) makes sense for them," she said.

• • •

At Derby Lane, the issue is a source of tension.

Breeders and kennel operators are concerned that live racing will end and they will be out of a job. But track spokeswoman Rasnake maintains that while Derby Lane supports the legislation, eliminating races is not an option.

"The thing with us is that we were founded on greyhound racing," she said.

Derby Lane is internationally known. It's home to hall of fame dogs and the biggest names in the sport.

"We still plan on having the same schedule since we've had when we've gone year-round,'' she said. "We don't plan on changing our schedule at all."

Proposal could hasten decline of greyhound racing in Florida, nation 04/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 29, 2011 10:37pm]
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