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Dogs are running again at Derby Lane, but no one is there to cheer

Tampa Bay Downs has been holding horse races in a similar setting, with no fans and Internet betting.
The greyhounds were off and racing Friday at Derby Lane, for the first time since March 19. The races were shown on the Internet, but no fans can attend yet.
The greyhounds were off and racing Friday at Derby Lane, for the first time since March 19. The races were shown on the Internet, but no fans can attend yet. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published May 9, 2020
Updated May 10, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Harrison Hare, the mechanical lure, whizzed by, the starting box flew open and the dogs were running again Friday at Derby Lane, much as they have the past 95 years at the historic and iconic greyhound track.

But little else about the scene was familiar.

“Strange," was the word CEO Richard Winning used, and he would know, working 40-plus years in the business his family opened in 1925 and still operates. “First time in the history of Derby Lane that we’ve run a race with no audience."

As the Rays, Lightning and Rowdies await word on when — or if — they can restart their seasons, and the Bucs hope theirs can begin in a few months, the dogs — and the horses at Tampa Bay Downs — are the only pro “athletes” on the job in the Tampa Bay area.

Related: Derby Lane returns to live racing, reverses course on spectators

Having shut down racing March 20 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Derby Lane first announced May 2 that it would re-open Friday with fans in attendance. The track had made accommodations and alterations (panels at vending and betting stations, floor markings) to keep spectators socially distanced and planned to check their temperatures on the way in. There were similar plans for its more popular poker room (slated to open Monday), which included allowing masks and gloves to be worn, reducing seating (from 10 to six) at the tables and providing ample hand sanitizer.

But in what Winning tactfully described as “a difference of opinion with local government authorities” over whether that was allowed under murky state guidelines, they opted to wait for clarification. Instead they re-opened the track Friday sans fans, with no targeted date — “Not yet," Winning said — to open the gates or the card room.

Betting was done online as the graphic  shows the odds, with Derby Lane getting a percentage of the money.
Betting was done online as the graphic shows the odds, with Derby Lane getting a percentage of the money. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Which brought us back to Friday, the first of six-days-a-week, 15-race matinee cards, streamed via derbylane.com and, more importantly for track officials, on greyhoundchannel.com where fans can sign up and bet, along with others in states that allow such off-site wagering, as a cut of the action comes back to Derby Lane. “It helps," Winning said. “Everything helps."

Longtime public address announcer Jim Peake welcomed “everyone on the Internet” and set about introducing the dogs, which were led to the starting box by the lead-outs (employees who were not wearing masks), watched closely by the judges, then returned to the trainers.

If you were watching on an iPad, it didn’t look that different, as the tight shots didn’t show the stands which, realistically, would have only had a couple hundred fans anyway. Peake reminded viewers of the fast-approaching post time, lapsing occasionally to note the betting “windows” were open.

“I think we’d say it went pretty good," said Cal Holland, a kennel owner and president of the Tampa Bay Greyhound Association. “The dogs have been worked for the past month or so, so they’re all in shape. We were just kind of glad to get open (Friday) and continue racing because we only have seven months more and our racing career is over."

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Related: Runners find solace, purpose in virtual races

That’s obviously now the other issue for men and women in the greyhound racing business, but they have been legislated out of business by state voters after Dec. 31, 2020. What was supposed to be a year-long goodbye has been abruptly altered.

“How much karma can we get between the elections and the amendment to put us out of business for racing, and then the other amendment that Disney and the (Seminole Tribe, which runs most of the state’s casino gambling) put together that precludes the legislature from giving us any extra gaming, that was bad," Winning said. “Then you get this. And we had the hurricane before that. You’re thinking, ‘My God, is there any break here?’"

For now, they’re trying to make do.

The dogs still had to be fed, cared for and trained during the shutdown, as they were run on the track four days a week in schooling-style races to keep them in shape. The track provided some financial help to the kennel owners, some of whom, Holland said, spend $1,000 a week on food, plus have to pay staff, veterinarians and others. “They did subsidize us some, but not enough to pay all of our bills," Holland said.

PA announcer Jim Peak introduced each dog, even though only the online could see and hear.
PA announcer Jim Peak introduced each dog, even though only the online could see and hear. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Winning said about 35 track employees worked through the shutdown, and another 15 or so came back on duty for the races, still well short of the 400-plus when the whole facility, including bars and restaurants, is open.

With the track “absolutely” losing money during the shutdown, and noticing a couple other state greyhound tracks as well as the nearby horse track were still running without fans, Winning said they figured whatever they got as a cut of the bets was better than nothing.

“We just kind of looked at it as, ‘Why don’t we try it?’ We don’t know what’s out there in the simulcast world. We were getting a lot of inquiries. People were starved for content. ... So we said let’s see how it goes … build some momentum, let people know we’re still around. And we want to use the money to feed the dogs and things like that."

Tampa Bay Downs officials had a similar take from the start, calculating that since the horses still needed to be fed and trained, they might as well keep racing them through the shutdown, one of only a handful of tracks in the country to do so.

Related: From putting with a dog to a first pull-up, here are your best sports moments of the coronavirus pandemic

Races are available on a pay-per-view basis on the Internet, and Downs gets a small percentage of revenues from out-of-state betting sites that was used to pay race purses and employees. It’s gone well enough that Downs got an extension to keep racing past its original May 3 closing date until the end of the month.

A spokesperson for the Oldsmar area track said future plans are unclear, but seeking another extension and re-opening to fans are both possibilities.

Winning said he thinks Derby Lane has done everything possible in terms of preventive actions and protocol for staff and fans. Now, without knowing how the finances of running with no fans will work, the track is just waiting for guidance on when it can get back to somewhat normal business.

“We hope to get that cleared up soon,” Winning said. “We’re looking like everybody else with the guidelines in trying to come with a safe and protective way the best we can for everybody.”

Times sports columnist John Romano contributed to this report.