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What is it like at St. Pete’s Derby Lane 3 years after greyhound racing ended?

A lively poker room and Amazon trucks that rent its vast parking lot keep the bills paid, but the family behind the now-empty track is weighing its future.
 
An aerial drone view of the former dog racing track and score board at Derby Lane, 10490 Gandy Blvd. N. Almost three years after greyhound racing ended, the track is now filled in with grass and is remarkably well tended to.
An aerial drone view of the former dog racing track and score board at Derby Lane, 10490 Gandy Blvd. N. Almost three years after greyhound racing ended, the track is now filled in with grass and is remarkably well tended to. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 28, 2023|Updated Dec. 1, 2023

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.

The view of the former dog racing track looking out from the grand stands at Derby Lane is almost ghostly in its silence.
The view of the former dog racing track looking out from the grand stands at Derby Lane is almost ghostly in its silence. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

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.

The lively poker room at Derby Lane has players lined up for Texas hold 'em and poker-based table games seven days a week. They can also bet on simulcast dog and horse racing.
The lively poker room at Derby Lane has players lined up for Texas hold 'em and poker-based table games seven days a week. They can also bet on simulcast dog and horse racing. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

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.

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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.

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“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.”

Carl Reiner and Brad Pitt filmed scenes for "Ocean's Eleven" at Derby Lane.
Carl Reiner and Brad Pitt filmed scenes for "Ocean's Eleven" at Derby Lane. [ Warner Brothers ]

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.

Louise Weaver, Derby Lane vice president and track historian, in the poker room at Derby Lane. She is the great-granddaughter of the track's founder, lumber baron T.L. Weaver, who opened the greyhound track in 1925.
Louise Weaver, Derby Lane vice president and track historian, in the poker room at Derby Lane. She is the great-granddaughter of the track's founder, lumber baron T.L. Weaver, who opened the greyhound track in 1925. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

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.

The striped post on the grassy berm of what used to be the greyhound track at Derby Lane marks where the finish line was.
The striped post on the grassy berm of what used to be the greyhound track at Derby Lane marks where the finish line was. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“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.

A player glances at his cards during a Texas hold 'em game in the poker room at Derby Lane. Managers said about 1,000 players a day come there to play, 1,500 on the weekends, where they can also bet on simulcast dog and horse racing around the country.
A player glances at his cards during a Texas hold 'em game in the poker room at Derby Lane. Managers said about 1,000 players a day come there to play, 1,500 on the weekends, where they can also bet on simulcast dog and horse racing around the country. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

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.”

Related: DiMaggio. The Babe. Brad Pitt. Derby Lane greyhound track hosted them all.

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.

One of the ways Derby Lane makes its money these days is renting out portions of its vast parking lot to Amazon, local car dealers and power companies to use as a staging area.
One of the ways Derby Lane makes its money these days is renting out portions of its vast parking lot to Amazon, local car dealers and power companies to use as a staging area. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]