Nearly a century of greyhound racing at St. Petersburg’s Derby Lane ends for good Sunday with a 12:30 p.m. matinee. The final race in the state will take place at Palm Beach Kennel Club on New Year’s Eve at 11:59 p.m., the very last minute allowed by law.
In November 2018, Floridians voted overwhelmingly to pass Amendment 13, which would ban greyhound racing in the state by the end of 2020. Since then, nine Florida tracks have already ended the practice, leaving the final two in the state running about 1,200 dogs down to the wire.
As greyhound racing in Florida phased out over the past two years, most owners have retired and adopted out their dogs, according to animal welfare advocates and industry players. A smaller number sent their animals to the handful of other states that still had the sport. But the exact journey of hundreds of former Florida racing greyhounds is impossible to know. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which oversees the industry, does not keep a paper trail on the animals.
What is certain, however, is adoptions of Florida greyhounds have been just as political as the campaign that forced their permanent retirements. Adoption groups that supported the passage of Amendment 13 have been blacklisted from receiving dogs retiring from tracks, with the National Greyhound Association only endorsing groups that are pro-racing or neutral on the matter, executive director Jim Gartland confirmed.
“We always felt like if groups were opposed to racing and wanted it to end and put us out of business, why would we want to work with them?” Gartland said.
Because there are about 100 industry-endorsed adoption organizations ready to take dogs, and a dwindling number of greyhounds in what remains of the sport, even racing opponents like Grey2K executive director Carey Theil doubt there will be dogs left in limbo.
But this divide over Florida foreshadows the next chapter. In 2021, greyhound racing will take place at just four tracks in three states: Arkansas, Iowa and West Virginia. And only West Virginia, doesn’t have a date for an expected phase out.
“These are the death throes of greyhound racing,” said Theil, whose Grey2K group backed the campaign to pass Amendment 13. “The industry deep down knows there’s not going to be some magical resurgence. The question is how long it will take to end completely and how many dogs die in the meantime.”
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Even before the constitutional amendment passed in Florida, public interest in greyhound racing had plummeted. At the sport’s peak in 1991, Americans wagered $3.5 billion at tracks across 19 states. By 2018, the amount had fallen below $500 million.
Greyhound racing is now illegal in more than 40 states, according to the Humane Society of the United States, which worked with Grey2K to pass Amendment 13.
The two dog tracks in Arkansas and Iowa are expected to shutter by 2022, leaving two tracks in West Virginia as the last vestiges. Compared to 26,000 greyhounds registered to race nationwide in 2000, Gartland said there’s now roughly 3,000 among the remaining three states.
Animal welfare groups that backed Amendment 13 focused their campaign of outreach and TV ads on what they described as widespread injury and prevalence of doping. Their $3 million effort detailed confinement that goes with racing life, where greyhounds are caged up to 23 hours a day, according to the Humane Society.
The demise of greyhound racing comes amid a wave of increased scrutiny on the welfare of animals in captivity in the U.S. In recent years. SeaWorld announced it would discontinue both killer whale breeding and performances as attendance plummeted. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ended its 146-year tradition in 2017 following relentless exposes by animal welfare groups about its treatment of exotic animals.
Horse racing is now facing its own reckoning with increased attention by lawmakers and the public on catastrophic injuries across the country: 6,134 fatal racing injuries between 2009 and 2018, according to reporting by the Courier-Journal.
Over the past decade, more than 10,977 greyhound injuries — from broken backs to electrocutions — have been reported at tracks nationwide, although that’s without Florida data which lacked statewide disclosure requirements, according to Grey2K. At the two West Virginia dog tracks, at least 271 dogs died or were destroyed between 2010 and 2019, the group said.
Like other backers of the greyhound racing, Ann-Marie Brown, adoption coordinator for the Gainesville chapter of Greyhound Pets of America, argues that reports of abuse are exaggerated or taken out of context.
“I’ve seen dogs get worse injuries in the backyard,” Brown said. “These dogs come to us in top top shape, at perfect racing weight, muscular, and fed like the athletes they are.”
There are more willing adopters than dogs coming off the tracks, she said, because of greyhounds’ kind nature and low-maintenance grooming that make them exceptional pets. And because most greyhounds stop racing between two and five years old, she said they make life-long companions in their retirement.
Brown said her group has helped adopt out three dogs from Derby Lane since Dec. 12. But almost all of the adoptions from the St. Petersburg track are coordinated through the pro-racing Tampa Bay chapter of Greyhound Pets of America. Tampa Bay chapter president Maryann Tolliver did not respond to a voice message or emails seeking comment about adoptions at Derby Lane.
Derby Lane had 609 dogs at the track as of mid-December, according to marketing coordinator Alexis Winning. But Winning said it was too early to confirm how many would be adopted out versus being sent to race elsewhere.
When dog racing ends, Derby Lane will stay open, with simulcast racing and card rooms continuing. Amid declining attendance over the years, the track was also halted for two months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Theresa Hume, director of publicity for Palm Beach Kennel Club, said the majority of the track’s 600 dogs will be adopted out after the last race Dec. 31, but she also could not give an exact breakdown of how many will continue racing.
Hume said the track works with about four adoption groups aligned with National Greyhound Association standards for their views on racing. But with a dwindling number of dogs in the sport, she said the demand is higher than the supply.
“We’re going to have more people wanting to adopt dogs than dogs available,” Hume said.
“We actually have pet haulers that are going to bring the dogs to different areas,” she said, including as far as Arizona where she said there’s high interest in adoptions.
Since the last race at bestbet Jacksonville on Dec. 5, president Jamie Shelton said all but 20 of the track’s 235 dogs have left, with two-thirds of those adopted out and a third sent to race up north. The 20 remaining will be gone by Jan. 1 after they are spayed and neutered, he said.
As for the future, Theil, of Grey2k, said welfare groups are still advocating to see out the end of racing for good. A bill introduced in Congress last year, but died in the House, aimed for a federal ban on greyhound racing by prohibiting gambling on commercial races.
He said his group has tried to provide assistance to the dogs coming off tracks and into pro-racing adoption groups, but there has been resistance.
On Aug. 21 the Greyhound Adoption League of Texas returned a $2,530 donation made by Grey2K’s president Christine Dorchak. In its letter to Dorchak stating the group was returning the money after “a unanimous vote of the board of directors,” the League copied the state and national greyhound associations.
“There’s a deep resentment and deep bitterness that they are living through with the end of this subculture that they’ve been in their entire lives,” Theil said. “Their parents and grandparents have been in, but they’re living an ending where society is telling them it’s wrong.”
Renowned Derby Lane trainer Cal Holland Sr. declined to comment on how the end of the industry has affected him and his family with five generations in the business. But he said all of the 66 dogs in his kennel are spoken for, with 44 in line for adoption and 22 headed to race up north.
“Just know none of them have been saved, they have been adopted. That’s the language people should use,” he said.