Grisly reports of greyhound abuse and death are spurring renewed efforts to "decouple" racing at Florida's 13 dog tracks.
Grey2K USA, a greyhound-protection organization, reported this week that from January to July of this year, at least 20 racing dogs had been killed or euthanized, including 10 put down at the Ebro Greyhound Park on the Panhandle.
At the same time, the report declared, "Greyhound racing is a dying industry. Since 2004, tax revenue from live dog racing has declined by 72 percent and paid attendance dropped 69 percent."
The combination of bad press and sagging revenues has given state lawmakers and the tracks impetus to make another run at "decoupling" legislation.
When Florida became the first state to legalize pari-mutuel betting on dogs in 1931, the races were moneymakers. But the diversification of gaming opportunities has steadily eaten away the profits.
Now, more Florida dog tracks rely on card rooms, slot machines and simulcast horse races to generate revenue. Two bills -- House Bill 641 and Senate Bill 382 -- would free the tracks from having to offer dog racing as a condition of maintaining their gaming licenses.
"Track owners want to save money; we want to save dogs," said Christine Dorchak, president of Grey2K USA.
Decoupling legislation cleared both the House and Senate last year, but differences in the bills could not be reconciled before the Legislature adjourned.
State Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, is sponsoring SB 382. Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, is sponsoring HB 641.
Now is the time to decouple the dogs, Sachs told Sunshine State News.
The requirement to mandate a fixed number of live greyhound races each year is not sustainable for our economy. I am proud to stand with Grey2K, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and all who care about market-based decisions for live greyhound racing in Florida.
In a statement, Young said:
Under this bill, greyhound tracks will be allowed to determine --as a business decision, not by government mandate --the level of live racing they will conduct at their facilities.
"The publics interest in dog racing is vanishing, and for the state of Florida to continue to prop it up at the expense of taxpayers and business owners makes no sense.
"Last year, the decoupling legislation was supported by a diverse group of organizations that included animal protection groups and most of the dog tracks across Florida. I believe many of those organizations will again support this common-sense legislation.
Grey2K's report offers an eye-opening and stomach-churning glimpse into the condition of Florida's dog-racing industry. Among its findings:
- "As many as 8,000 greyhounds ... are kept in small, stacked cages for 20 to 23 hours per day. Larger dogs cannot stand erect in cages."?
- State records show greyhounds suffer deadly injuries while racing. Recently reported injuries include multiple broken legs, an electrocution and a crushed skull.
- State regulators documented greyhounds being killed because they were no longer profitable.
- Greyhounds have repeatedly tested positive for drugs, including cocaine, while others are not properly vaccinated.
- Of 689 kennel inspection forms examined by GREY2K USA, 127 forms listed conditions as "poor."
One of the worst horror stories occurred in October 2010, when state investigators found 37 dead greyhounds at the Ebro track. The dogs had died from dehydration or starvation.
"This is the worst case of cruelty to animals that I've ever seen," Washington County Sheriff Bobby Haddock said at the time.
The trainer's license was revoked, but the track continues to operate.
Ebro did not respond by deadline to Sunshine State News' request for comment.
As a rule, track owners say contracted trainers, not the tracks themselves, are responsible for the care of racing dogs and the upkeep of kennels. The Florida Greyhound Association, which represents breeders and trainers, did not return Sunshine State News' call for comment.?
Because Florida does not require tracks to report injuries to the public, Grey2K's findings are the first comprehensive look inside the industry.
Falling out of favor elsewhere, dog-racing remains in only six other states. Thirteen of 22 operational greyhound tracks in the United States are in Florida.
Located from Pensacola to Miami, Florida's dog tracks are increasingly risky business, Dorchak says.
"The state's mandatory racing requirement forces greyhound tracks to offer live greyhound racing as a loss leader for other, more viable forms of gambling," she said. "This comes at a significant cost to both taxpayers and track operators, and conflicts with free-market principles."
Dorchak said, "Decoupling is not about whether greyhound racing should or should not be legal in Florida, but whether the state should force a business to conduct one activity so that it may offer another. This legislation does not expand gambling in any way."
Magic City Casino, formerly the Flagler Greyhound Track, is among the tracks supporting the decoupling bills.
"We are following the legislation as it would impact our business model since our Naples-Fort Myers track is mandated to run the highest number of performances in the state," said Magic City spokesman Izzy Havenick.
"We believe that the legislation will ensure that government doesn't impose business models. Rather, it will have the market guide business models."
Grey2K succeeded in decoupling dog racing in New Hampshire, which Dorchak said "was losing $1 million a year regulating dog-racing."
"Tracks shouldn't be forced, and the state shouldn't be subsidizing," she argues.
Grey2K is also pushing decoupling bills in Arizona and Iowa.
Reach Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (772) 801-5341.