As Richard Winning talked about the climate at Derby Lane, the weather outside his third-floor office suddenly began to deteriorate. A sunny morning had turned gloomy with lightning, thunder and heavy rain.
Winning, the greyhound track's new president and chairman of the board, is no stranger to change. He manages a business his family accidentally fell into 90 years ago, one that continues to bring challenges and the occasional baseball stadium rumor.
Like his great-grandfather, Winning didn't expect to be running a dog track. Four decades ago, he accepted a part-time job in the track's personnel admissions department before a planned move to Haiti to manage a watchband factory. He never left St. Petersburg.
"I fell in love with (Derby Lane) and have been here ever since," he said.
Richard Brooks Winning, 58, a St. Petersburg native who was born at St. Anthony's Hospital and grew up on Snell Isle, now is the alpha dog at arguably the nation's top dog track. He was the senior vice president when Vey Weaver, his cousin, announced on May 28 his retirement as Derby Lane's president. That day, the track board of directors unanimously voted for Winning to replace Weaver, ensuring that Derby Lane, the world's oldest continuously operating greyhound track, would remain a family run business.
Winning officially became the track's eighth president Wednesday.
Winning's family has a rich history with Derby Lane. His mother is the granddaughter of T.L. Weaver, who became a greyhound track owner through a business deal gone bad.
Weaver, owner of Pinellas Lumber Co. and a real estate baron, was approached by some St. Petersburg businessmen about erecting a greyhound track on Gandy Boulevard. Weaver sold them the land and the lumber to build the facility, but they couldn't pay their bills, and ownership of the property reverted to Weaver.
Before the track transaction, Winning's grandparents John and Joyce Brooks had moved from Michigan to Pinellas County at the request of Weaver to assist him selling real estate. Joyce Brooks, one of three daughters, was the oldest of Weaver's six children.
John Brooks teamed with Weaver to get the greyhound track started.
"Nobody really knew (about greyhound racing) back in those days," Winning said. "They all learned on the fly, and all of a sudden they had a dog track and said, 'Now what do we do?' "
Derby Lane, whose company name is St. Petersburg Kennel Club Inc., opened for racing Jan. 3, 1925, with a 90-day meet. Wagering on dog races was illegal at that time. So the track devised a plan to allow patrons to purchase stock options in the greyhounds. The stock options served as wagers on dogs, and the greyhounds represented companies. Bettors would buy a share of ownership in a dog before a race, and afterward the track would purchase the shares of the dogs that finished in the top three places.
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When no racing was scheduled, green beans were grown on the land, track vice president and historian Louise Weaver said. Other events were held at the facility then, including stock car races and football games, one featuring Jim Thorpe.
Winning is old school and doesn't use Facebook or Twitter. His 40-year journey at Derby Lane has been punctuated by constant learning and hard work.
"I was a management trainee and worked all the jobs," he said. "You can take all the (college) classes you want, and that's fine and dandy. But what you really learn is when you're in the weeds."
The only child of Richard "Dick" and Mary Margaret Winning (he has two half-sisters from his father's previous marriage) acquired his work ethic at 15. Dick Winning, who died in 1983, owned Chrysler-Plymouth automobile dealerships in Fort Myers, Seminole and St. Petersburg, where Richard performed various jobs in the wash rack, body shop and parts department, and where new cars were prepped. His mother, now 90, was a homemaker.
Richard attended area elementary and Catholic schools before going to Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Va., from 1970-74. The school closed in 1976 and was purchased by neighboring Mary Baldwin College, an institution for girls.
"I wanted to get out of town and thought it would be kind of interesting," Richard said. "You're living life a little bit free. It was quite the deal. … I spent most of my time at Mary Baldwin girls college."
He returned to Florida, graduated from St. Petersburg College and attended USF, where he took business courses for 1½ years before leaving school to raise a family. Richard has three daughters: Andrea Winning, 45; Alexis Winning, 32; and Kimberly Winning, 27. Andrea is Derby Lane's community coordinator, and Alexis handles track social media.
Richard began working at Derby Lane while attending USF. Dick Winning had other plans for his son. The elder Winning shared ownership in a watchband factory that did contract work in Haiti for corporations that included Bulova and Timex. "They had a contract to fulfill for watchbands, and I was going to go down there to run the plant and do it all," Richard said. "I was young."
But Derby Lane made an impression on him, and he decided to stay.
Louise Weaver, Winning's cousin and a great-granddaughter of T.L. Weaver, said Derby Lane is in good hands.
"Richard has eternal optimism in a positive way," she said. "I think Richard will continue to lead us in a direction that will help us operate in a profitable way. He obviously understands every aspect (of the business), from the poker to the greyhounds, on a very detailed level, and he's worked with the Legislatures all these years.
"Richard and Vey both started here when they were young. They had to work in all the departments, and I think that's what makes it successful."
Richard and Vey Weaver spoke often about infusing Derby Lane's entertainment menu with more items.
"We both took business in school, and we understand that economics in any business, you have to have new products," Richard said. "It's just basic one-on-one. Vey always felt that we should have new business, and his father (did) before him."
Wagering on Derby Lane dogs has been on a downward spiral for years.
"Go back to 1987, which was our peak year with $105 million (wagered)," Richard said. "We were open four months out of the year, and we would run 1 million people through our turnstiles. Today, it takes us about all year to get 600,000 people, and our handle is nowhere near that."
Derby Lane's first major competitor was the Florida Lottery, founded in 1988. Then the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in East Tampa took off in 2003, offering slot machines, poker and blackjack. It is now the world's sixth-largest casino.
"The challenge in the long run has been the (Florida) Legislature," Richard Winning said. "(The casino) is doing a tremendous amount of business, and our customers are driving by us to go there because we don't offer what they want to do."
Statistics from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering say Derby Lane's handle of $80,040,474 in 2006 had fallen 70.1 percent by 2014 and wagering on greyhounds at all state venues was down 47.4 percent, to $251,564,694. During that time, poker at Derby Lane increased 29.4 percent, to $8,775,068, and it was up at all Florida card rooms a staggering 206.4 percent, to $136,163,614.
Derby Lane also has pared its work staff by more than 44 percent in the past 31 years to its current 444.
"The challenge is trying to keep people in an area where you have a lot of entertainment dollars being spent at the various venues," Richard Winning said. "It's like we're in the buggy whip industry. The state of Florida has not allowed us to continue to work our business as we see fit. What if McDonald's was stuck only selling hamburgers and no cheese? Where would they be today? You have to adjust to the times in any business or you're going to go out of business."
Derby Lane and other greyhound tracks also have been questioned by animal rights activists who say too many dogs are injured and the sport should end.
"The animal rights people have a way of sensationalizing numbers," Winning said. "I feel very strongly about putting it into context, because in any sport you're going to have an injury. If you take all the kids … playing sports nationwide, we could sensationalize that number, too. You could say there's probably 3½ million kids that are injured every year playing sports. But nobody seems to be (telling people) to stop letting their kids play sports, be it soccer, swimming."
Tracks are mandated by the state to report greyhound deaths. The 12 Florida tracks reported 221 deaths from June 1, 2013, to May 30, 2015, in statistics available from the Florida Department of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. The state does not provide a breakdown of causes of death — whether greyhounds died from racing or health-related matters. Derby Lane ranked first in deaths with 30, followed by Daytona Beach (27), Sarasota (26), Orange Park-Jacksonville (25), Sanford-Orlando (23), Ebro (21), Palm Beach (17), Pensacola (11), Flagler-Miami (6), Mardi Gras-Hallandale Beach (6), Naples-Fort Myers (3) and Melbourne (2). The remaining 24 deaths had no track designation.
Derby Lane inspects and refurbishes its kennels regularly, and it drags the track before every performance and each race for safety.
"You have the fastest animal in the world, next to the cheetah, out here racing," Winning said. "Where else can you see the power of an animal run like it does, and its love to run goes back to the Bible days. The average greyhound costs $9,000, so if somebody makes an investment, it's the kennel owners' livelihoods to take care of these dogs.
"(Dogs) are fabulously taken care. Yes, they live in crates. But the crates are very large and big enough to stand up, move around and sleep in. (The dogs) are all in air-conditioned buildings and heated in the winter. They have televisions, stereos, whirlpools, acupuncturists, massage therapy. They're exercised all the time, and they're fed beef or vegetables every night."
Winning said Derby Lane's key to a profitable future is the Legislature.
"I'm going to try anything that the state of Florida will allow me to do and get away with … because everything I do has to be approved by the state of Florida. And that's where the rub is," he said. "Our biggest deterrent is the state of Florida. The state of Florida is not only our partners, they're our competitors, too, with the lottery. The Legislature, who wants to say that they're business-friendly, is not being business-friendly in allowing business to do what business needs to do.
"New products (for Derby Lane) could be expanded card games, it could be slot machines, something that the public wants and saves them time from driving all the way to Tampa (to the Hard Rock)."
Winning said "decoupling," which would allow tracks to operate other forms of gambling without a state-mandated minimum number of greyhound races, would not be a cure-all for Derby Lane.
"Decoupling was designed more to help the smaller tracks survive," he said. "Because of the casinos (and) 'racinos' (tracks where slot machines and sometimes card and table games are available), they don't have the dogs like they used to to come in and run in these small facilities. (Derby Lane) is not going to make any money off decoupling. … What does it for us is the new products."
Winning remains optimistic about the future of Derby Lane, but with the track's more than 130 acres, some consider it a potential site for a new Rays baseball stadium. Winning didn't rule it out.
"Right now, nobody has talked to us," he said. "The word got out originally through the (Tampa Bay) Times about us being a location for the Rays, and we're like, 'What?' We are presently looking at moving forward, continuing to do business the way we're doing business. Should (the Rays) want to talk, our door is always open for conversation. Talking is free."