Amir Khafagy is a New York City-based journalist. He has contributed to such publications as Shelterforce, Curbed, City Limits, and In These Times.
Florida was home to most of the remaining greyhound tracks left in the U.S. But Amendment 13, banning dog racing, passed last year and the tracks are closing.
PALM BEACH, FLA.— It’s noon and the blazing Florida sun bears down on the few spectators that mill around the outdoor, cigarette butt-littered stands at south Florida's last Greyhound racing track. Races at the Palm Beach Kennel Club start promptly at one, but some of the long-time regulars—mostly middle-aged men—prefer to get an early start to their daily ritual.
“It’s a peaceful place to spend time in the morning,” said Jose, a 58-year old electrician and local Palm Beach resident. “Nobody bothers anyone here and I can come and forget about my problems.” Even during racing hours the stands are sparsely populated. Only a small but faithful few come to the track solely to watch greyhound racing.
Greyhound racing has never attracted as glamorous a crowd as horseback racing draws. It’s a younger sport, one century old instead of nearly four, and the animals are smaller and cheaper. Horseback racing has been known as the sport of kings.
As legitimate attention to the abuse of the animals forced to compete has grown, both horse and dog racing have been under attack. But a sport of kings has powerful backing from billionaires, queens, and, of course, kings—dog racing, not so much.
Forty states have already enacted laws banning the races. Florida had been greyhound racing’s strongest holdout, home to 11 of the remaining 17 dog tracks left in the country. Last November in a hotly contested campaign, Floridians overwhelmingly voted in Amendment 13, which not only bans greyhound racing in the state by 2021, but also enshrined the ban in Florida's constitution. The Palm Beach Kennel Club will close its dog racing track in 2020, and club workers and devotees aren’t sure what they’ll do next.
Attendance at the club has dwindled from the large crowds that flocked to Florida during the sport’s heyday between the 1970s and 90s when celebrities such as Frank Sinatra were known to make appearances. But it has maintained a loyal following among an eclectic group of devotees.
The regulars are enjoying the time they have left at the track engaged in their daily routines, some passing time between races by chomping on cigars as they study the odds in the daily racing program. Others are napping in the shade or hanging out with old friends, debating the record of a particular dog, catching up on the track gossip. Amongst the men that are spread out on the tracks’ lime green benches is Chris, a 54-year old retired horse jockey from Trinidad. He nurses a beer as he enjoys the tranquility.
“I love to watch the dogs because these animals are so intelligent. They bring me so much joy,” he said. “Yes, I like to bet a few dollars but normally I come to the track just to enjoy and to relax with friends.”
Many of the other regulars share similar sentiments. Gambling seems to be second to the social environment the track provides. “I love gambling on dog racing but at the end of the day the track is a family affair,” said Benjamin, a 41-year old maintenance director from Minnesota. “My father and I come here regularly to get away from the wives and have a few beers. During Fathers’ Day I’ll bring the rest of the family and my kids love to play with the dogs. Honestly, I can’t think of anything better I would rather do with my time.”
And others have been raised at the tracks. Andrew Holmes started his job at the Palm Beach Kennel Club four years ago as one of the lead outs, most of whom, like Andrew, are young African-American men. “A lead is basically a simple job,” he says. “You just walk the dogs out to the track and you bring them back.” Holmes was introduced to the sport then he was a kid. His parents would take him to the track on the weekend. While they were betting he would spend hours watching and playing with the dogs. When he finally was able to land a job at the track it was a dream come true, he said. “This job is really the best thing ever.”
Seeing them, it’s easy to forget that greyhound racing in Florida is living on borrowed time, or that many say it is fueled by animal cruelty. Banning greyhound racing in Florida has been a long-held dream for animal rights advocates who believe the sport is inherently abusive to the dogs.
“Amendment 13 represents the biggest victory for greyhound adoption and advocacy anywhere at any time in history,” said Christine Dorchak, president of GREY2K USA Worldwide, an organization dedicated to passing greyhound protection laws and ending dog racing. “Florida is now and has always been the hub of commercial dog racing nationwide and worldwide, so the definitive November 6 vote will now have widespread implications for greyhounds across the globe.”
Greyhound racing in Florida has been anything but profitable in recent years. Between 1992 to 2007 money wagered on dog racing fell from $1.5 billion to $200 million. Yet the sport stubbornly persisted because of an unusual 1997 state coupling law that required facilities that wished to operate poker rooms to also operate parimutuel betting—betting in which bettors bet against each other, and the more people who bet against your choice rather than with you in a race, the bigger the pool. Popular parimutuel sports in Florida are jai alai, horse races, and greyhound races. The parimutuel law was passed in part to protect the industry as well as limit the amount of gambling venues in the state.
Several previous attempts had been made to end dog racing in Florida but all bills introduced failed in the state legislature after strong opposition from the greyhound breeding industry. That was until 2017 when Tom Lee, a Republican state senator from Tampa, proposed amending the state constitution. “There is growing recognition that many of these animals live in inhumane conditions, a reality that is out of line with the moral standard of Floridians,” Lee said in a statement. “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.”
Animal rights groups formed the “Committee to Protect Dogs—Yes on 13,” raised a $3 million war chest, and drew endorsements from celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Bette Midler, and Pierce Brosnan. By contrast, the two main pro-racing PACs, Committee to Support Greyhounds and “Say No to 13,” raised only $560,000, according to tracking by Ballotpedia. “Greyhound racing is a working-class sport,”said Kurt Trzeciak, a pro-racing advocate and greyhound trainer with Lester Raines Kennels. “We just don’t have the same resources to compete.”
On election day, Amendment 13 passed by 69 to 31 percent. “With or without Amendment 13, it is clear that Florida dog racing was on its last legs,” said Dorchak. “People had been voting with their feet for years, and on November 6, they were also able to vote with their hearts and minds to help put an end to this cruel pastime.”
According to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation 949 greyhounds tested positive for performance enhancing drugs between 2001 and 2017. The number of horses that have been found to have performance enhancing drugs in their system by Florida’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering is much higher. But worse, 492 greyhound deaths were reported at Florida race tracks between May 2013 to July 2018. The numbers for horses are more difficult to obtain: A website that tracks such numbers reports that a FOIA request to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation revealed 100 deaths from racing-related causes of horses at Florida tracks in 2018.
The pro dog-racing side disagrees with the accusations of animal abuse. “Deaths and injuries are fairly low when you take into account the thousands of dogs that race in the state of Florida every year. Of course you have bad apples but by and large the dogs are treated well,” said Trzeciak. “Extreme animal rights groups are extremely corrupt. They poured millions of dollars in ads saying how cruel the sport is and it’s just not true.”
Since the passing of Amendment 13, three tracks have already ended Greyhound racing. The remaining eight are expected to phase out races in the coming months. What will happen to the dogs and employees has yet to be determined. It has been reported that up to 3,000 people will lose their jobs and upwards of 6,000 retired dogs will be in need of a home. Trzeciak, who has been training Greyhounds all his life, is heartbroken. “My job is fun because I get to work with these amazing dogs. I love them,” he said. “This is more than just a job but our way of life.”
Andrew Holmes worked his way up at Palm Beach Kennel Club to become a supervisor of the lead outs. He said there were few opportunities elsewhere and the track was one of the few places that offered him a chance to make a decent living for himself and his family. “Jobs are hard to come by around here. Like when I say there's nothing, there's nothing.” When he first learned about the ban he didn't take it seriously but as the months went by it slowly sank in. “Everything I learned here I can't take nowhere else,” Holmes said with tears swelling in his eyes. “This ban is taking everything away from me.”
In November, Florida also passed Amendment 3, which requires voter approval for almost any expansion of gambling in Florida, leaving most gambling at the casinos controlled by the Seminole Tribe, which, with Disney, contributed more than $36 million to encouraging voters to support the amendment. These recent amendments leave the future of gambling in Florida in question.
Regardless of what happens next for gambling in Florida, the end of greyhound racing in the state will likely mark the end of a controversial sport in America. Some wonder, though, why the billion-dollar horseback racing industry—one that has garnered the same condemnation from animal rights groups for its treatment of animals, and that systematically pushed out blacks—is still flourishing.
For its part, Palm Beach Kennel is determined to support its 539 employees through this transition. “The management is committed to finding jobs for all our employees,” said Sarah Mears, the Assistant Publicity Director. “But the job market is hard, so we’ll do as much as we can.” As for the fate of the venue, its future isn’t certain. The management is actively pursuing other avenues to generate profit.
“We are open from now until 2020,” said Mears. “We are going to continue doing what we have always been doing until the end.”