Derby Lane: Love for a dying sport

This photo from May 8, 1987 — a Thursday — shows a crowd of 9,881 on hand for the season’s final night of dog racing at Derby Lane. Track officials had projected a season attendance of 990,000, the first time in the track’s history it would fail to attract over 1 million attendees.
This photo from May 8, 1987 — a Thursday — shows a crowd of 9,881 on hand for the season’s final night of dog racing at Derby Lane. Track officials had projected a season attendance of 990,000, the first time in the track’s history it would fail to attract over 1 million attendees.
Published April 27, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — They packed together, shoulder to shoulder, in the shade of the entrance to Derby Lane's greyhound track. It was minutes from opening and an anxious energy had settled on the mostly gray-haired crowd of about 30. They leaned on walkers and benches, and, through reading glasses, studied programs detailing the matinee races to come.

Pacing nearby, a shaggy-haired man checked his watch as time ticked past 11:30 a.m. and the track had yet to open. Frustrated, he slapped a program against his leg. Another regular, clutching a frayed clipboard that held his race notes, reminisced with a security guard about how long the lines stretched decades ago.

Then, a signal. The turnstiles cranked like pinwheels as people rushed in with the exuberance, if not the pace, of teens at a pop concert. Steadied by his cane, a grizzly of a man with a scruffy Fu Manchu hobbled — rather, hopped — up the brick ramp. Others shuffled by, headed to their favorite, or luckiest, seats.

Inside, the patrons spread thin across a stadium that once held 12,000 people. Racing since 1925, Derby bills itself as the world's oldest continuously operating greyhound track. To those who care, it is an iconic site, the Lambeau Field of its sport. But those who care grow fewer every year.

Since 2007, the St. Petersburg Kennel Club has reported dog track losses of more than $20 million, including $3.2 million last year alone. In fact, not a single Florida parimutuel posted an operating profit from dog racing in its most recent state financial filing.

But because of the sport tracks are allowed to also run card rooms, and in some cases slot machines, about half of the state's 20 dog racing permit holders made up for deficits with other gambling revenue. Derby's card room, for example, made $4.8 million last year, eclipsing dog track losses.

The numbers call into question a persistent assertion from Derby's operators: that even if lawmakers allowed them to run card rooms without dog racing, they would still race.

"The public has already said, 'We prefer other kinds of gaming,' " said Steve Norton, a gambling analyst and industry expert. "If there's nobody watching it, what's the purpose?"

He believes that when the tracks are allowed to stop dog racing and focus only on profitable gambling, they will.

The sport's demise in Florida appears inevitable.

In most cases, the track operators would see six- or seven-figure gains. Animal activists, outraged by reports that dozens of dogs died at tracks last year, would be ecstatic. The state — with related revenue dropping in the last decade from $17.2 million to $3.3 million — could stop monitoring the industry.

So who, then, wants to keep the dogs racing?

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• • •

It was a morning for postcards: sunny and dead-on 70 degrees. The air smelled of coffee and chili and hot dogs. Over the pops of cigarette packs slapping palms, Barenaked Ladies' 1998 hit One Week (among the most current offerings all day) squawked overhead.

Patriotic buntings hung neatly along a chain link fence.

At noon, Derby's announcer, his deep voice murky through the speakers, asked visitors to stand for the national anthem.

Salvatore Falco, 90, didn't hear him. His back to the track, he sat hunched over a table taking notes. He wore pressed khakis, shiny loafers, a tucked-in button-down and a newsboy cap.

Salvatore stared at a TV for a few minutes and then stood, shuffling his 5-foot-4 frame behind a walker to another set of TVs about 100 feet away. His feet never left the ground.

That morning, Salvatore had taken a bus down from his one-bedroom apartment in Clearwater. He brought $20 to gamble, not on the dogs but on horse races in New York, where he used to watch them in person.

Salvatore, a decorated World War II veteran, grew up in New Jersey with seven siblings. He worked at a bar, a restaurant and a business that made lighters. His wife of nearly 40 years, with whom he had no children, died in the late 1990s, and he hasn't talked to his surviving siblings in years. He moved to Clearwater to live near his godson.

"Most of my friends, they've died," he said, his voice delicate but still pure Jersey. "They're gone."

Salvatore's next race began. He muttered to himself, pointing a cane at the screen.

"He'll make a move now, watch," he said. "There he goes. See the one on the outside."

He shook his head.

"Too far back."

Salvatore lost the bet but didn't seem upset. He doesn't come to hit it big, or really even for the thrill of trying. He comes because people at the track know his name and because he can't stand to sit at home, alone.

In fact, many people who spend days at Derby care little about how much they win or lose.

Lou and Judy Young, both 74, spend half the year in a St. Petersburg mobile home and the rest in a house north of Pittsburgh. Matinees have been a tradition since 2003.

He keeps a pencil stub behind his ear and bets the historically fastest dogs. She likes to yell "Show us the money" during races and bet either No. 8 (it wears Pittsburgh Steelers colors) or her favorite names, like "Astar Bowdiddley" ("Bow" reminds her that their grandson plays violin).

Over the years, Lou's system has paid only slightly better than his wife's.

Both said they hoped recent news coverage of the dogs' deaths would help improve the animals' living conditions, but neither wants the races to end.

"We have to have something to do," Judy said.

Joe Collins and his mother, Catherine, come for the same reason. The retired corrections officer cares for her at their home in Zephyrhills, 40 miles away. They live on his pension and her Social Security and have, for the last five years, shared the hobby. They gamble three times a week with a $30 limit. He bets the even races, she bets the odds.

"It occupies your mind," said Catherine, who is 85.

Joe doubted they would share the experience much longer.

"It's a dying industry, dog racing is," he said. "All older people."

Joe, at 56, was among the youngest in the stadium.

• • •

If Derby had a mayor, or maybe a Viking king, it would be Mike Conner, the tottering hulk with the tusk-like Fu Manchu.

Mike, 59, almost always gets the same prime table in the middle of the first-floor viewing area. He jokes with a pair of military veterans who usually sit next to him, calls Catherine "Mom," has a favorite cashier named Beth and contends Wednesdays offer the week's best lunch.

"One hell of a buffet," he said.

Mike, from Brandon, lives mostly off of government disability. Several of his bottom teeth are gone, and he said he has osteoporosis, diabetes, heart problems and a failing hip.

"I'm popping 12 pills in the morning just to get started."

On that recent afternoon, he headed for the exit after the 10th race. Two friends asked how he had done. Up $1,400, said Mike, grinning. Outside, a security guard shook his hand.

"Hey, Larry," Mike said. "I did pretty good today."

Mike, unlike others, cares a lot about the money. He straddles the line between the two primary types who attend Derby matinees: the older folks who need activity and the folks of all ages who need to gamble.

Members of the latter are ubiquitous.

They speed walk to the cashier, the concession, the bathroom, everywhere. If they're sitting, which is rare, they bounce their knees and chew their bottom lips. During races, they strangle ink-stained programs. They yell at the dogs and at themselves. If their picks fail, they move, as if their presence somehow influenced the outcome. They commiserate over near misses. They punish losing tickets, crushing and shredding and throwing them to the ground, often within feet of trash cans.

The reminiscing man with the clipboard would not count himself among them.

"I'm an old-fashioned handicapper," said Toussaint, who insisted that was his only name, legally.

Sitting on the balcony, he wore a kufi and a wrist band with the words: "CHESS IS COOL." He said he is nearly 70 and attends dog races three times a week. If they stopped in Florida, he would move to Iowa to keep gambling. Derby depresses him now, anyway. In the 1970s, it was a place to see and be seen, to bring a date.

Plus, he said, the quality of the dogs has declined with the shrinking pots.

As the 15th and final race of the matinee approached, he finished his light beer and Pall Mall cigarette, then stood.

The race began.

"C'mon five. All the five."

He leaned with the dogs around the turns.

"Get up there. C'mon seven. C'mon four, eat this ... one up."

It didn't. He shrugged.

Despite twice picking three winners in a row that afternoon, Toussaint still lost money.

• • •

The sun fading, a dozen kids pressed against the fence, waiting for the dogs. Their lips were sticky with ice cream. Gamblers remained, because they always remain, but for evening races, Derby's older population had largely been replaced by families who, likewise, just wanted something to do.

For Holly Weaver's kids, of Charlotte, N.C., Derby has been part of spring break since birth.

Kendall, 10, had a simple selection strategy: "I went with my gut." Her brother Keller, 7, didn't have a strategy but was no less bothered by losing. After each miss, he suggested that mom get him nachos.

Both are aware of dog racing's tenuous future.

"I'd be so mad if they shut down," said Kendall.

"It would be so boring if this closed," said Keller.

Some attendees, like Logan Xavier, care far less. In a flame-accented cowboy hat and sleeveless shirt, he wandered out to drink a Bud Light only because he had been knocked out of a tournament in the card room.

"Honestly, this is more to kill some time for me," said Logan, 36. "I'm here for the poker."

Above him on the balcony, four generations of Tonya Scott's family talked of different times.

"My grandpa loved it here," said Tonya, 45.

He loved it so much that after he died 30 years ago, the family secretly spread some of his ashes in a flower box, since removed, on the balcony's edge.

His widow doesn't mind that it's gone. At 84, she is silver-haired and leans on a cane made from a metal broom handle, but her memory hasn't waned. The stadium, now aging and often empty, doesn't remind her of the place he so adored.

It was in those still, too-quiet moments that the track's failing economics were most obvious.

The staff included a bartender, a tractor driver, a sweeper, a cameraman, an announcer, two waitresses, two cooks, two security guards, at least seven cashiers and nearly 20 dog handlers, a total that appeared to outnumber the fans. Still, more than 140 TVs hummed on as did a scoreboard the size of two school buses.

When the day's 30th and last race ended, a family from Michigan took a photo beneath the aqua-neon greyhound before it was shut off.

A man swept stray tickets and cigarette butts as a waitress bagged leftover popcorn for the security guards. The windblown buntings were twisted tangles around the fence.

"So long everybody," the announcer said, "from St. Petersburg."

As the last few walked out, on the far west side of the concession stand, light filtered through a glass door.

Inside, chips clacked and cards snapped. About 70 players sat around the poker room's tables. They wore sunglasses and checked their smartphones between hands. They sipped energy drinks and pumped their fists at wins.

It was 11 p.m. on a Wednesday.

Times artist Don Morris contributed to this report.