ST. PETERSBURG — Just a few years shy of its 100th birthday, Derby Lane still looks like its old self.
Well, sort of.
The grandstands at the longest continually operating greyhound race track in the country are empty and quiet. The tote board no longer displays racing odds in lights and is neatly boarded up since voters outlawed greyhound racing. They held their last race on Dec. 27, 2020.
But instead of letting it just turn to weeds, the track and infield have been tended to meticulously. The oval racetrack made of sand that saw dogs whip around the curves is gone, covered now in tidily manicured grass. There’s still a fountain at work in the man-made lake and walking path in the empty infield that once had Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on hand to congratulate winners. If you look closely, there’s a black-and-white post embedded in the grass where the finish line used to be.
Derby Lane sits on 130 acres of prime real estate, its location drawing the attention of Major League Baseball and other developers over the years. It has an expansive parking lot, and its huge main building, with now-quiet betting windows and sloping stadium seating, is imposing and empty.
After the dog races stopped, the employee roster at Derby Lane fell from a high of 800 to now about 300 employees, managers said. The property’s vast parking lot is full of Amazon trucks that pay rent as a staging area, also used by local car dealers and power trucks at times.
The action these days is in the poker room that is hopping seven days a week. They estimate that 1,000 players a day (1,500 on the weekends) come for Las Vegas-style poker. Players can also wager on simulcast horse races and races from West Virginia, the only state where greyhound racing continues.
Louise Weaver feels the presence of ghosts in the grandstands. She is the vice president of Derby Lane and the great-granddaughter of the track’s founder, T.L. Weaver, a lumber baron who took possession of the track after its builders ran out of money.
Carved out of palmetto and pine forests at the edge of Tampa Bay, what was originally called the St. Petersburg Kennel Club opened in 1925.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“Oh it does have ghosts for me,” Weaver said. “When I walk out there to the paddock it’s like they come out and say hello.”
The property’s distinctive look has drawn the attention of Hollywood when it needs a setting that looks old-school. Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Carl Reiner filmed scenes there for the 2001 hit movie “Ocean’s Eleven.” Same with Bryan Cranston and the 2015 film “The Infiltrator.” And Daniel Stern and a pre-McDreamy Patrick Dempsey were shown betting on the dogs in the 1990 movie “Coupe de Ville,” which was set in the early 1960s.
Weaver, a former art historian who worked in the archives of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, is also the track historian who recently donated a cache of Derby Lane’s historical records to the North Carolina State University Libraries’ Special Collections. Their large collection of photographs, scrapbooks, racing programs and artifacts are in the newly processed Derby Lane Greyhound Track Records, now available online.
Meanwhile, it looks like racing just ended last week at the stadium and the track with its freshly mowed lawn.
“We just couldn’t have it any other way,” Weaver said. “There’s so much history here and you can feel the presence of all those people who came here over the years. It is lovely to look at and we like it this way.”
Three years ago, the crowds arrived to see the last greyhound races, and Weaver said they didn’t have the heart to let the stadium fall into disrepair once racing had ended.
“It was shoulder to shoulder, and for just a moment it felt like greyhound racing wasn’t going to end, but then the tears came,” Weaver said.
Derby Lane is in a low-lying area near Tampa Bay, and any new development would require a zoning change for commercial or hotel projects since it still has its original stadium zoning, Weaver said. Negotiations with prospective developers have often fallen apart because of worries about governmental limits on what they can build.
Having been a family-run business for nearly 100 years (the current CEO, Richard Winning, is Weaver’s cousin and the great-grandson of founder T.L. Weaver), the family isn’t in a hurry to just sell off the property, she said.
“I think as we continue to grow I could see maybe a hotel or something to go with the poker room, but this building,” she said, waving at the stadium seats, “would not work. It would have to probably be torn down.”
In the meantime, she said she likes to preserve it as is to maintain memories.
“The glory days are over but we need to do it right, we need to find the right building and location on this property,” Weaver said.