ST. PETERSBURG — One day, Charter kennel owner Rodney Cooley would like to settle at Derby Lane and live in the city where he was born.
Now is not that time.
Cooley, whose kennel has been one of the top operations at Derby Lane the past two decades, is leaving the St. Petersburg greyhound facility next week. It was a numbers game that didn't add up. Two years ago, Charter's stock of dogs became limited when an illness hit its Texas-based farming program. Derby Lane's declining purses — the lowest among six tracks where Cooley competes — sealed the move.
"It's just a matter of getting built back up so I can have enough dogs to supply on a regular basis," said Cooley, a St. Petersburg native who resides in Wheeling, W. Va. "(Purse) points are down a bit more than normal. Being in the top five kennels, you barely break even with expenses of gas and everything going up.
"My goal is to come back (to St. Petersburg) and live, but it's getting hard to make a living unless you run the kennel yourself."
This is Derby Lane's second major kennel defection in the past year; Wayne Ward left in 2010. Alabama Racing, one of the leading kennels at Daytona Beach, will replace Charter when the new season begins Friday, Derby Lane spokeswoman Vera Rasnake said.
Cooley, 46, also races dogs at Flagler in Miami, Naples-Fort Myers, Gulf at La Marque, Texas, Southland Park at West Memphis, Ark., and Wheeling Island. Purse points reach $230 at gaming tracks such as Southland Park and Wheeling Island, Cooley said. Derby Lane's most recent points payout was $55.04, down from a season-high $73.64 (Feb. 28-March 6). Points values are based on money wagered on the product.
Trainer Danielle Asbury was stunned by Cooley's decision.
"It was a very, very big surprise," she said. "I've worked for Rodney for four years, and I loved every minute of it."
Asbury expects to move to Bridgeport, Ohio, in July but said she has no job lined up: "I may go back to school."
Charter is exiting Derby Lane for the second time. It raced in St. Petersburg from 1996-2004, and returned in 2008. In 15 Derby Lane meets, Charter has won 3,429 races with one kennel title (1998), four seconds and 14 top-10 finishes. Some of Charter's notable Derby Lane performers were 2002 All-America member Dodgem By Design and 2003 track wins leader Lonesome Cry.
Tonight at the track: Derby Lane celebrates Fan Appreciation Night with the final two stakes of its 2010-11 campaign: the $30,000 St. Petersburg Derby (Race 10) and $10,000 Consolation Derby (Race 8). Starters from the rail in the 85th annual St. Petersburg Derby: Flying Masago (McAllister kennel), Dancin Rainman (Nova), Flying Marvelous (McAllister), Storm Rush (Royal Racing), Ok Barry (Capabal), Magic Smoke (Abernathy), Galway (D'Arcy) and Uss Gazillionair (Lester Raines). First post is 7:30.