At the finish line?

A Florida lawmaker’s proposal to end greyhound racing in a state where it proliferates.

click to enlarge CHASING THE HORIZON: Racing greyhounds run multiple times a day for several years, and most go up for adoption when they're retired. - Nancy W. Beach/Creative Commons Sharealike 3.0
Nancy W. Beach/Creative Commons Sharealike 3.0
CHASING THE HORIZON: Racing greyhounds run multiple times a day for several years, and most go up for adoption when they're retired.

It’s not clear how greyhounds got their name.

They rarely sport a grey coat.

Instead, it’s widely believed their moniker derives from the Old English term “grighund.” The “hund,” of course, easily translates to “hound,” but nobody’s 100 percent certain what the “grig” comes from; theories about its meaning range from “fair” to “great.”

In the Middle Ages, during a period of famine, monks saved them from extinction by breeding them as hunting dogs for nobility; Chaucer even mentions them in Canterbury Tales.

Now, of course, the sleek, powerful dogs are synonymous with racetrack betting.

In no place is that more the case than the state of Florida. Even as most states have seen the industry sharply decline, if not disappear, Florida has held steady as the state with by far the most dog tracks within its boundaries. Of the 18 dog tracks remaining in six states, 12 are in Florida.

In recent years, state lawmakers from both major parties have sought to change that with bills that would limit the practice, only to hit a brick wall during legislative session.

But one legislator wants to end greyhound racing using a different maneuver.

Earlier this month, State Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican from Brandon, proposed a state constitutional amendment that could, if placed on the 2018 ballot and the voters approve, phase out greyhound racing statewide over three years.

For years, animal welfare advocates locally and nationally have fought for an end to the practice. They cite what they say is poor treatment of the dogs: confinement, exposure to the elements, low-quality food, steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, neglect and deaths on and off the the track. The Arlington, Mass.-based greyhound advocacy group Grey2K USA estimates that a racing greyhound dies every three days in Florida.

Over a seven-month period in 2013, the Tampa Bay Times reported at least 72 racing greyhounds died in the care of their handlers. Earlier this year, multiple dogs tested positive for cocaine and cocaine metabolites at St. Petersburg’s Derby Lane. (A spokeswoman for Derby Lane denied comment for this story.)

Industry critics also say that, with the industry’s decline in popularity over the years, the cost of regulating the practice exceeds the amount of revenue the state pulls in from taxes and fees.

Greyhound racing industry leaders vehemently deny all of this. They argue that the dogs are generally treated well, the industry is regulated, that dog racing is an economic boon to the state and that if the industry were to go away, so, too, would its economic impact.

click to enlarge SPECTATOR SPORT: The stands at St. Pete's Derby Lane, reportedly the oldest dog track in the country. - Nancy W. Beach/Creative Commons Sharealike 3.0
Nancy W. Beach/Creative Commons Sharealike 3.0
SPECTATOR SPORT: The stands at St. Pete's Derby Lane, reportedly the oldest dog track in the country.

As a member of the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC), Lee has the ability to propose amendments, which could go directly onto the ballot with commission approval, rather than via voter petitions or legislation.

“For over a decade, the Legislature has fought to end greyhound racing, but special interests derail the issue every year… Now is our opportunity to finally end the mistreatment of greyhounds, reduce the amount of gambling in our state, and restore community values,” he told’s James Rosica. (Lee did not return requests for a phone interview or a list of questions CL sent him via a spokeswoman by deadline.)

The amendment would go further than previous efforts to get rid of dog racing, which hinged on reversing a 1997 law that legalized some gambling beyond Seminole reservations. That is, only at places where wagering was already legal at the time: jai alai frontons, horse races and, yes, greyhound racing tracks like St. Petersburg's Derby Lane. As part of allowing patrons to legally wager in poker, law requires dog tracks and other facilities to hold at least 90 percent of the number of races/matches they held in 1996.

Animal welfare advocates have long sought to decouple dog racing from other forms of gambling with the hope of the industry going away entirely one day.

Yet a legislative fix seems just out of reach.

“We get just a little bit closer every single year,” said Don Goldstein, a longtime greyhound advocate who is on the board of Greyhound Rescue and Adoptions of Tampa Bay, Inc. (G.R.E.A.T.). “And that’s why I drive nine hours to go to Tallahassee and talk to these people and walk the halls and pound on doors. Because we get just a little bit closer every year. We’ll get there.”

State Sen. Dana Young (R-Tampa), who has fought for decoupling for years, said in an email no matter how much of a no-brainer a proposal may be, if gaming is involved, someone will find it problematic.

“While this may appear to be a simple solution to the steep decline in greyhound racing revenue and handle, the fact that it involves a pari-mutuel enterprise adds a significant level of controversy and complication,” Young told CL (handle meaning money wagered over a period of time). “The inequitable competitive positions of greyhound tracks with slots and without slots, as well as the desire of other parimutuels (thoroughbred racing, harness racing, jai alai, etc.) to de-couple further complicates the issue. Add the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe and even the most basic gaming issue becomes thorny... Interestingly, the only group advocating for continuation of greyhound racing are the breeders, which have a vested financial interest in maintaining the artificial (state created) market for their dogs.”

The biggest roadblock, Goldstein said, has been the Florida Greyhound Association, a group that lobbies lawmakers in Tallahassee on behalf of dog racing interests.

“The Florida Greyhound Association frankly has a much bigger lobbying budget,” he said. “We don’t have a lobbying budget. We’re just a bunch of people that care about dogs.”

Goldstein said he likes the idea of a constitutional amendment phasing out the practice because it gives rescue groups time to find homes for the estimated 8,000 dogs that are currently running races in Florida.

Decoupling, meanwhile, would give tracks the option of keeping the the races going.

“Senator Lee’s proposal strikes me as an intriguing idea,” said Duncan Strauss, host of Talking Animals, a weekly call-in show on WMNF-88.5 FM Tampa, who in June wrote a piece about Florida’s dog racing industry for the Washington Post. “And given the screwy, byzantine law that requires the tracks to offer dog racing (which many tracks would be happy to end) in order to operate their card rooms — where the big dough is — a constitutional amendment might well prove to be the best gambit to halt racing once and for all.”

Because of the image of greyhounds coursing forward at some 66 feet per second with muzzles attached to their snouts, rescuers seeking forever homes for retired racers regularly encounter the misconception that these are aggressive, hyperactive dogs. In truth, they’re loyal, affectionate and can actually be a little lazy.

“They are very, very laid back. Because they were in those cages 22-23 hours a day, that’s how much they sleep,” said Goldstein, who has adopted nine greyhounds and fostered 40 over the past 20 years. “Literally, they’re couch potatoes. They’re 45-mile-an-hour couch potatoes.”

Jack Cory, a lobbyist for the Florida Greyhound Association, has two adopted dogs and three fosters at the moment. He calls the breed “awesome” and, like Goldstein, uses the term couch potato to describe them.

But the agreement ends there.

If Lee’s proposal does get onto the ballot — or, as Cory puts it, “slipped into the Constitution” — he’ll likely fight it.

Animal rights groups and entities like Grey2K are likely to flood the state with their own message, citing the deaths, the practice of feeding them non-human-grade “4D” meat (the four Ds being “dead, dying, diseased and disabled), confinement to 2.5-foot by 3.5-foot crates for up to 23 hours per day and the use of drugs like cocaine and steroids, possibly to enhance the dogs’ performance. As puppies, their ears are tattooed with identifying numbers. Some dogs are reportedly abandoned or neglected.

“We’ve had dogs that had hundreds and hundreds of fleas and other dogs, hundreds and hundreds of ticks,” he said. “To the point where they’re anemic from the bug bites.”

To Cory, instances of such mistreatment are blown out of proportion. In an email, he said racing “is good for Florida and it is good for the Greyhounds [sic].”

The state regulates and inspects the dogs’ living conditions, he said, and they get more physical activity “than the average Family Pet [sic].” The food they’re given isn’t any different from cans of dog food you find at Publix, he added, and that injuries are common for all athletes, canine or otherwise. As for the number of deaths (which his group estimates constitute about half of all racing greyhound deaths), Cory argued, his group is proposing a law requiring all tracks to install safety implements.

He sent along a Facebook video of a morning training session for Sanford Orlando Kennel Club dogs, which shows nothing suggesting neglect or abuse. He said it's much more representative of how racing dogs live and how their handlers treat them.

Tracks and the FGA also actively engage in adoption programs for retired racing dogs.

Sen. Young argued that if the industry cared so much about the health of the dogs, they would support her bill outlawing the practice of giving the dogs anabolic steroids, rather than float a bill that would allow a certain amount of certain substances — and, critics say, cocaine — in their systems.

“[T]he fact that these greyhound breeder groups are opposing legislation to end the doping of racing greyhounds with anabolic steroids, while at the same time are pushing so called ‘humane’ legislation to allow cocaine in racing greyhounds, is simply absurd,” she said in an email (emphasis hers). “Spare me the crocodile tears — these groups are not interested in humane treatment — it is clear that they only care about the money they can make by exploiting these defenseless animals.”

While Cory said tracks are a boon to the state’s economy — due to local wagers and out-of-state betters wagering on races that are telecast as well as some 3,000 jobs within the industry — critics beg to differ.

“It’s at the point now where it’s costing the state, by the (Florida) senate’s own study, between two and four million dollars a year to regulate the industry,” Goldstein said (Cory argues that the state Department of Business & Professional Regulation doesn't break down its parimutuel regulation expenses in way that can even suggest that.) And state data suggests the tracks themselves are losing money each year. Some track owners have even said they’d phase out or cut back on dog racing if they could. As for those 3,000 jobs, the industry’s critics argue that those are mostly minimum-wage jobs anyway, and in the current economy there are better jobs available in the surrounding area.

The CRC has until May to approve amendments for the November 2018 ballot. Should the 37-person panel not approve, activists can also get it onto the ballot via a petition drive, which would likely have to start well before May.

“I certainly stand in favor of any legislative move that will reduce greyhound racing — a dark subculture rife with animal cruelty, injury, and death — and if it will end the horrid activity altogether, so much the better,” Strauss said.