PUBLISHED OCTOBER 1, 2020
ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDAIt’s 8:30 on a Saturday night in August. A gibbous moon hangs low in the Florida sky, its pale glow no competition for the red neon proclaiming, “GREYHOUND RACING” and “DERBY LANE.” About 300 people are scattered around grandstands that once held thousands, murmuring among themselves while the loudspeaker plays big band and rockabilly tunes.
They fall silent when it’s time for Frederick Davis to lead the parade of dogs.
“TNT Sherlock,” says the announcer, calling the names of the eight sleek animals as Davis makes them pause in front of the stands. Each dog wears a big number attached to a snugly fitted vest known as a “blanket.” “Tailspin,” the announcer calls, “…Charlotte York….”
Next, Davis, 41, and the eight handlers he supervises will put the dogs in the starter’s box. The mechanical rabbit named “Hare-son Hare” will zoom past, squeaking and shooting blue sparks. The doors will fly open, and the greyhounds will burst onto the track, their bodies a blur, their paws tossing sand in the air as they gallop around the oval for 30 seconds. They hit speeds of up to 45 miles per hour, making them second only to the cheetah, the fastest land animal on Earth.
Derby Lane is the oldest continuously operating greyhound racetrack in the United States, but it’s headed on its last stretch. Two years ago, Florida had more greyhound tracks than any other state—11 out of 17 nationwide. Now it’s down to three, with about 1,700 dogs still racing.
In 2018, Florida’s voters had the chance to approve a constitutional amendment—Amendment 13—that would ban betting on greyhounds as of December 31, 2020. The proposal, which effectively bans greyhound racing, was brought by critics of the sport who contend dog racing is cruel and inhumane.
The racing industry bet on beating the amendment, arguing that its supporters were exaggerating stories of dogs’ mistreatment. The industry spent just a fraction of what supporters did on the campaign, believing the sport was popular enough that the majority of Floridians wouldn’t vote to ban it.
Greyhounds stretch their legs at Farmer Racing. Though generally gentle and non-aggressive, greyhounds often wear muzzles around each other because they can get competitive
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They misjudged. Nearly 70 percent of voters said yes to the shutdown. Now the tracks must close by New Year’s. Derby Lane’s final race will be December 27.
Davis, a tall, slender man with dreadlocks and a quick smile, will be one of 400 Derby Lane employees out of work. He isn’t sure what he’ll do next. He’s been at the track for 14 years and considers this his ideal job.
“I love dogs,” he says, “and I love being outside.”
He might try to become a security guard, he says. That way he could work with dogs again—guard dogs, though, not greyhounds.
He’s not the only Derby Lane employee wondering about the future.
Since the peak of dog racing in 1985, state laws have led to the closure of racetracks across the country. After Florida’s tracks close at the end of 2020, and Iowa and Arkansas’ by the end of 2022, only two active commer-cial racetracks will remain—both in West Virginia.
States with active commercial racetracks
TEXAS Active track FLORIDA The last active dog racetrack in Texas closed in June 2020.
“It’s a shame to have to shut down after 95 years,” says Derby Lane CEO Richard Winning, 64, whose office overlooks the track. His family has owned Derby Lane since it opened in 1925. He predicts that once the Florida tracks close, the ones in other states will follow.
“In 20 years, will anyone even remember what greyhound racing was?” he asks.
This is the one thing on which he agrees with Carey Theil, whose Massachusetts-based greyhound advocacy group, Grey2K USA, spearheaded the drive for Amendment 13: Once Florida’s tracks are gone, so too is the whole industry.
What makes greyhounds the fastest dog breed also makes them susceptible to injuries on the racetrack.
The low body fat content of about 2 percent and a thin single-layer coat reduces the ability to self-regulate temperature.
At two points during the stride all feet are free from the ground. This allows short bursts at up to 45 miles per hour but offers poor endurance.
Gathered aerial phase
Extended aerial phase
A deep chest enables lung power and holds a very large heart that can go from 100 to over 300 beats in one minute, promoting muscle oxygenation.
Long, strong legs with a large proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers allow sprinting but lead to fatigue fast.
DIANA MARQUES, NG STAFF
SOURCE: MICHAEL GRANATOSKY, NEW YORK INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
In 1952, the Greyhound Racing Record said only 30 percent of greyhounds bred for racing would become competitors, leaving open the fate of the other 70 percent. Even those that do race only do so until they’re about five years old. Grey2K has compiled all the news stories over the years about greyhounds being destroyed or sold to laboratories for experimentation.
Among their evidence of cruelty: a 2010 case from a track in the Florida Panhandle town of Ebro, where a trainer left 37 dogs to starve to death after the racing season ended. He ended up pleading guilty to more than 30 counts of animal cruelty and being sentenced to five years in prison.
Possibly the worst case happened in 2002. A security guard for the Pensacola track was arrested after authorities found an Alabama junkyard where, over 10 years, he had killed and buried some 3,000 greyhounds. He said he’d been paid $10 each for shooting them when they got too old. A prosecutor called the junkyard “Dachau for dogs.” The guard died before he could be brought to trial on animal cruelty charges.
The scandals cut down greyhound racing’s popularity as fans were turned off by the repeated reports of mistreatment. Meanwhile, competing gambling operations—first the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes’ casinos, then the Florida Lottery—began siphoning off the profits, Winning said.
The loyal fans tended to skew older. In 2001, when Steven Soderbergh filmed a scene at Derby Lane of George Clooney and Brad Pitt recruiting someone for their Oceans 11 robbery, their target was Carl Reiner, then 79. He fit in perfectly with the graying greyhound crowd. More....