Lawmakers didn't set out to hurt racing dogs when they allowed card games at greyhound tracks. But in propping up a fading racing industry, they inadvertently put the health of dogs at risk by requiring tracks to stage more races than demand supports — just to keep the card rooms open. It's time to reassess the arrangement, acknowledge the rules have produced unintended consequences, and quit propping up an industry that would be gone without the misguided incentives.
In the last seven months of 2013, new public reports show 74 greyhounds died at 10 Florida racetracks. Derby Lane in St. Petersburg and Daytona Beach Kennel Club and Poker Room reported a dozen deaths each. The reports of deaths are the first of their kind; a 2010 law required track operators beginning last year to disclose when a dog dies. But the reports generate more questions than answers about the care of dogs and a struggling industry.
As Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported last Sunday, the accounts of dogs' deaths ranged from a greyhound that was force-fed after not eating for four days to dogs suffering fatal injuries on the track; from a puppy apparently arriving from breeders too ill to survive to an animal put back in its kennel before it had cooled down.
The tracks acknowledge they likely would be closed if the state had not agreed in 1996 to let them add lucrative card games. The agreement required them to maintain at least 90 percent of the live races run in 1996. Yet wagering at the 13 facilities that run greyhound races was $265.4 million in 2012, down two-thirds from the $933.8 million they collected in 1990, according to Spectrum Gaming Group's report for the Legislature. Those same dog tracks reported that dog racing losses totaled $35 million in 2012, prompting several track owners to say they would end racing if they could keep the card games.
The question is how to make that work without giving parimutuels one more loophole. A Jacksonville dog track already has opened an off-site card room. Broward County's Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino, a horse track with slot machines, has been trying to convince the state to allow it to use a second parimutuel permit it has in a new location — a Miami site owned by Genting, a Malaysia concern that has pushed for Florida to allow destination casinos.
Regardless of what happens in the legislative session, the state should be doing more than standing by. Tracks should be required to report animal injuries and invest in improvements that could reduce them.
The industry says that would be too expensive. That is a tired excuse. Dogs should not be abused and kept running in so many races just to keep the card rooms operating. If they can't afford to do it right, the tracks should be shut down and their card rooms limited to the size and sites that exist today.