ST. PETERSBURG — Tradition suggests it isn't possible. Tallahassee could dictate otherwise.
Greyhound racing at Derby Lane, the world's oldest continuously operating dog track that debuted in 1925, might become extinct. That stunning scenario exists if sister bills in the Florida Legislature, giving total control of racing dates to individual tracks, become law.
"We're devastated," Tampa Bay Greyhound Association president and kennel owner Cal Holland, 66, said. "This is the biggest threat I've ever seen to greyhound racing."
Senate Bill 1594 and House Bill 1145, written to eliminate the requirement that dog tracks conduct live races in order to maintain a parimutuel license, have advanced through subcommittees. The legislation would empower tracks to set racing dates with no minimum performances required or even drop the sport completely. Poker, simulcast wagering and slot machines would remain at current sites. SB 1594, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Maria Sachs of Delray Beach, was approved by a 7-5 vote. Republican Rep. Dana Young of Tampa authored HB 1145, which passed by a 14-1 vote. The legislative session concludes May 6.
Holland said the bills would allow tracks until Aug. 31 to amend their 2011-12 racing dates recently awarded by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. Next season, Derby Lane and Tampa Greyhound Track have been granted six-month permits with all racing at St. Petersburg. Tampa, which dropped live racing in 2007, received 210 performances from July 1 to Dec. 31. Derby Lane was granted 209 performances from Jan. 2 to June 30, 2012.
Another piece of legislation, SB 1708, was withdrawn Wednesday by Republican Sen. Dennis Jones of Seminole. It would have allowed up to five "destination resort" casinos in the state and prevented any parimutuel site, including thoroughbred tracks like Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, from engaging in their developments. The Downs is slated for 92 racing days next season, from Dec. 10 through May 6, 2012.
A perfect storm could end greyhound racing at Derby Lane as early as July 1, when the Florida bills would take effect. But that isn't likely. Holland said he was told by Derby Lane chief of operations David Tiano that the track schedule will run "as is" for at least the next year.
"We have a good partnership with Tampa and plan on maintaining that partnership, which would keep us year-round on the same schedule that we have now," Derby Lane spokeswoman Vera Rasnake said. "(The bills) give tracks the flexibility to manage their business the way they need to make them operable."
Holland said an attempt was made last year to end the sport. An amendment, stating that it would be unlawful to wager on animals under 150 pounds, was attached to agricultural bill SB 382. But it was killed on the final day of the legislative session.
Trainer Catherine D'Arcy said the bills would take away greyhound people's leverage.
"They don't have a bargaining chip anymore to go to the tracks (if the bills pass), so all the security they have is gone," she said. "The tracks could run one day or 100 days a year, and you have no tool to then go to the track and say, 'This is what we need or how many days.' "
Derby Lane, one of 13 state tracks with live greyhound racing, has always been linked to the Weaver family. Chairman of the board Vey Weaver is the track's seventh president. His great-grandfather, T.L. Weaver, opened the facility.
Said kennel owner Jim Abernathy: "I always said Derby Lane would be the last track running, because that's how committed to dogs I thought Derby Lane and the Weavers were. But if these bills pass, it may be the end."
More Derby Lane: The $80,000 Distance Classic resumes tonight in Races 6 and 10.