ST. PETERSBURG — The departure last week of Lester Raines kennel from Derby Lane took some by surprise. Yet, it wasn't surprising.
Lester Raines is the third longtime operation to leave in the past 2 1/2 years, an exodus that started shortly after former Gov. Charlie Crist signed a five-year compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida in 2010 for gaming exclusivity within the state. The St. Petersburg greyhound track lost Charter in 2011 and Wayne Ward in 2010.
Though other states have let dog tracks enhance business with casino gaming — and subsequently boost their purses — Derby Lane has not been able to because of the deal approved by Crist and the Legislature. With Derby Lane's purse structure at $60 a point — the minimum ensured by the track and based on money wagered — Lester Raines moved to Southland Park in West Memphis, Ark., a facility that pays a casino-aided $260 a point. Jeanne Lesperance, who managed Lester Raines at Derby Lane with husband Ken, said money was the factor in their departure.
"Five kennels (at Southland Park) ran out more than $1 million last year," she said. "If Crist hadn't given the (gaming) monopoly to the Indians, then the points (at Derby Lane) wouldn't have kept steadily dropping."
Patriot, Derby Lane's kennel champion the past two meets, earned less than $500,000 last season. "It costs so much to run the dogs," Patriot manager-trainer Cal Holland Jr. said. "It's just tough for these big kennels that want more money to stay."
Jeanne Lesperance had been at Derby Lane since 1994, the last 12 1/2 years with Lester Raines. "It has nothing to do with Derby Lane," she said. "It is just the opportunity."
Derby Lane director of racing Jerry Miller replaced Lester Raines with a Jacksonville kennel owned by John Lashmet. "(Lester Raines' move) was all economics," Miller said. "They may think it's the promised land now … and I hope they make a good living for themselves. But I think when all is said and done, you'll see that promised land start to go downhill. They all know that Derby Lane is quality racing, even though it might not be for the same money because of (gaming) machines."
John Graham, manager-trainer for Pauline O'Donnell kennel and formerly with Wayne Ward, said, "The state of Florida is behind the times on their parimutuel offerings. (Derby Lane) does so well at trying to encourage us to stay, and the stakes program is so good. If Derby Lane was on equal footing with states that are offering casinos, they wouldn't lose anybody."
MORE DOGS: The $8,000 Inaugural Stakes is tonight in Race 10 (10:11 p.m.).
HORSES: Tampa Bay Downs has the $75,000 Turf Dash Stakes (Race 9, 4:25) today in Oldsmar. … Trainer Jamie Ness (wins) and owner Midwest Thoroughbreds (wins and purse earnings) captured 2012 national titles.