Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Making history for Florida greyhounds

A caged greyhound at Orange Park Kennel Club
By Christine A. Dorchak, President and General Counsel of GREY2K USA Worldwide

History awaits the greyhounds this fall. On Election Day, the voters of Florida will have the opportunity to turn back the hands of time and end dog racing in its most established state. As many as 8,000 lucky greyhounds stand to receive the second chance they deserve, closing out nearly 100 years of exploitation and cruelty.

The first recognized commercial greyhound racetrack in the world was opened in 1919 in California. The Blue Star Amusement Park had an oval track and featured a new invention called the mechanical lure. Created by Owen Patrick Smith, the device was intended to offer a more humane alternative to the traditional use of live rabbits in field coursing. By 1930, sixty-seven "flapping" tracks had opened and closed all across the United States – none of them legal. A bid to force approval of dog racing in Kentucky was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927, but failed. No state would authorize this new business, even during the height of the Great Depression.

But Florida was different. It became the first state to allow dog tracks to operate legally – as long as it received a piece of the action. In 1931, Sunshine State lawmakers passed a racing bill over Governor Doyle E. Carlton’s veto. By 1935, there were ten licensed tracks in operation, some controlled by known criminals such as Meyer Lansky. Oregon and Massachusetts became the next states to authorize dog racing, in 1933 and 1934 respectively. Although church groups, civic and humane organizations rallied in opposition, the new industry of greyhound racing continued to grow and was legalized in a total of nineteen states by 1989.

Greyhounds racing at the Tampa race track

Referred to as the “Sport of Queens,” perhaps in reference to Queen Elizabeth I’s promotion of greyhound coursing in the sixteenth century, dog racing sought to promote itself as elite, glamorous and a good time for all, including the greyhounds themselves.Proponents of dog racing in Florida were perhaps the most enthusiastic of all in emphasizing the “sun and fun” to be had at its facilities. Old time movie heartthrobs, entertainers and sports figures such as Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Janet Leigh (star of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”) and even Old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, made multiple appearances at dog tracks in the Sunshine State. In 1958, Sinatra filmed a movie about a dog track gambler at the Flagler Kennel Club and one year later, he appeared on the cover of the Greyhound Racing Record along with a woman newly crowned as the “Queen of American Greyhound Racing.” Photographed with them was the winning dog in a race named after the famous singer. 

Those days are long gone and the truth about dog racing has now been revealed in official state documents, financial reports and testimony from dog track workers themselves. Kept in warehouse style kennels, in rows of stacked metal cages for 20-23 hours a day, the dogs are fed a diet based on raw, diseased meat. When let out of their cages to race several times a month, they face the risk of serious injury. Broken legs, crushed skulls, snapped necks, paralysis and heat strokes are common. Some dogs have even been electrocuted while racing. According to information gathered by the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, a greyhound dies every three days at Florida’s eleven racetracks.

Caged greyhounds at the Sanford Orlando Kennel Club
Cheating is another hallmark of this industry. Over the past decade, there have been 419 greyhound drug positives, including 68 cocaine positives. Greyhounds have also been found with pain killers and opiates like novocaine and oxymorphone in their systems. Females are routinely given anabolic steroids to build muscle and prevent loss of race days during their heat cycles, a practice which triggers both animal welfare and race fixing concerns.

Thankfully, dog racing is now illegal in 40 states and since 1990, the amount of money wagered on dog racing in the Sunshine State has plummeted by 74%. Tax revenue has declined by 98% and the tracks themselves now lose a combined $34 million. If it were not for a state mandate requiring racetracks to offer a minimum number of races as the platform for other, more popular forms of gambling, this antiquated activity would have ended long ago. Until it does, the state will continue to waste as much as $3.3 million per year regulating a dying industry.  

Statewide polling shows that Florida voters will vote to end dog racing if they are fully informed about its humane and economic problems. You can help the greyhounds by learning learn more about Amendment 13 and by spreading the word that it’s time to set the greyhounds free.