Greyhound racing is, by all accounts, a dying sport. Less popular with each passing year, it seems more and more that the tracks that still exist aren't there because they themselves are a draw, but because of an arcane state law passed in the '90s that allows tracks to feature lucrative poker tables if they run at least 90 percent of the number of races they held in 1996. So even as fewer and fewer people gamble on the dogs — and even as the industry hemorrhages money (Florida tracks lost $35 million in 2012) — the tracks remain.
Poker is not without its problems. People can get in over their heads and spend money they don't have. But one thing poker tables don't have is a body count.
The same can't be said for greyhound racing.
On Feb. 15, the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times published an exposé of the industry. Drawing on newly available records, the investigation found that 74 dogs had died on racetrack properties in Florida in the last six months of 2013 — one every three days, on average. Jacksonville tracks were not immune.
One greyhound, the 3-year-old, fawn-colored Penrose Jake, had his final race at Orange Park Kennel Club last August. Jake started strong that night, but then slammed into another dog and finished last. A few hours later, following a 127-race career, he was dead. The track didn't say what caused Jake's death. It didn't have to: While Florida lawmakers recently began forcing tracks to report greyhound deaths, the tracks don't always provide detailed information about what happened.
In early September, a greyhound named Hallo Spice Key died after being sprinted around a Jacksonville track in the pre-dawn hours, long before a race. "It appears the death could have been prevented had the greyhound not been sprinted in the dark," the report concluded.
Most of these deaths are, in fact, preventable, the dogs victims of the industry's greed. Thirty-one dogs in that six-month span died or were euthanized for race-related reasons — injuries, heat stroke, etc. — while another 17 died after falling or suffering collisions during races. In Florida, unlike in other states that are home to dog racing, track owners don't have to report injuries. The Florida Greyhound Association, which represents dog owners and trainers, blames the state's poorly maintained tracks for many dogs' injuries and deaths (though the association does not favor expanding reporting requirements).
Hallo Spice Key was raced by the notorious James "Barney" O'Donnell Kennels, implicated earlier this year by the Florida Division of Parimutuel Wagering for keeping anabolic steroids onsite at South Florida tracks.
(This isn't the industry's first allegation related to performance enhancers: In 2010, I wrote about the apparent practice of dosing dogs with cocaine to give them an extra boost. The industry's theory then was that certain "rampant cocaine users" could've coked up the dogs by petting them. Of course, that doesn't make sense. But what about greyhound racing does?)
O'Donnell makes a convenient scapegoat. When I asked bestbet Jax, which operates races at Orange Park Kennel Club, about the allegations, I received this from president Jamie Shelton's PR guy:
"bestbet … is committed to providing the highest level of safety and protection for the greyhounds that race at the facility. There is a zero-tolerance policy for any kennel or person who puts at risk the health and welfare of the animals. As soon as bestbet became aware that the O'Donnell kennel had been sited [sic] by the state, they were banned from racing at Orange Park."
In other words, the problem isn't the sport or the track, but a rogue actor.
This canned response ignored my other questions: the humaneness of greyhound racing, its future viability, the superannuated law that keeps tracks going as covers for poker rooms (which are thriving, and in 24-hour operation on weekends).
Greyhound racing is not as inhumane as, say, cockfighting. But there is something horrifying about it; targeted to the degenerate gambler, vulgar to the core, it shouldn't surprise anyone that out of the 21 tracks still going nationwide, 13 are in Florida — and like so many of the industry's dogs, maybe it's time this sport be put down once and for all.