Jack Anderson Thursday, December 13, 2018

A decision in Florida last month will effectively end greyhound racing in the US. What is the likelihood of a similar fate befalling the sport here? asks Jack Anderson

Next year will be the centenary of the opening of the world’s first commercial greyhound racing track, built in Emeryville, California. At the time, the town, wedged between Berkeley and Oakland, was a haven for gambling dens, speakeasies and brothels and thus it was thought a greyhound circuit would fit snugly.

Emeryville, where the building of its first dog track predated its first church by 40 years, would later be called the “rottenest town on the Pacific” by US Chief Justice Earl Warren. The track would, however, only host races for a few months in 1919, as a federal crackdown on illicit gambling and bootlegging ruined the night at the dogs for the e’villes, as the locals liked to call themselves.

However, greyhound racing would soon thrive in other parts of the US, notably in Florida, which, post-Prohibition, was one of the first states to legalise gambling on the greyhounds in 1931.

Today, greyhound racing has been illegal for decades in its original state of California and last month Florida banned betting on the sport. This means that, as we approach its centenary as an industry, the sport is effectively dead in the US. The prognosis internationally is equally grim.

Firstly, to the US and Florida: In Florida, elections are famously fraught and tight. Last month, and in an election as close and as controversial as George W Bush’s Supreme Court victory over Al Gore in 2000, the Republican candidate was declared governor on a recount with a mere 0.4% majority.

Things were not so close in one of the many constitutional amendments tagged onto the gubernatorial ballot in Florida. Amendment 13 sought to put into Florida’s constitution an express ban on greyhound racing by penalising betting on the sport. The amendment succeeded on a 69%-31% majority and commercial greyhound racing will end in Florida from January 1, 2021.

Florida has just over half of the remaining greyhound tracks left in the US (11 out of a mere 20). It is by far the biggest gambling market for the sport in the US and its revenues have subsidised the sport nationally. Without Florida, the sport will wither and die in the five states in which it now survives: Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Texas and West Virginia.

Greyhound racing’s terminal illness as an industry in the US is a pattern repeated globally.

The last track in Asia — based at the gambling hub that is Macau — closed this year. The last track in London — at Plough Lane, Wimbledon — closed last year.

This means that at present commercial greyhound racing is now confined to six countries: The US, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and, of course, Ireland.

In the US, the sport is in irreversible decline, a factor that will also likely kill off the single remaining track left in Mexico, located in the border town of Tijuana.

As a result, modern greyhound racing will enter its second centenary in only four countries.

Equally, there are four reasons as to why greyhound racing is now in its death throes in the US and four things to look out for in those countries, such as Ireland, who seek to keep it alive: Complacency by those who run the sport; its declining economic relevancy; internal integrity threats; and animal welfare concerns.

In the US, the Republican party was seen as being more sympathetic to the sport; the five states in the US where the sport remains legal all voted for Trump in the last presidential election.

What greyhound racing supporters in Florida did not realise in the run-up to last month’s vote is that in a state where the Republican majority is wafer thin, old political bonds were equally as brittle.

The sport, though once a significant contributor to the economy in Florida, both as an employer in rural areas and in terms of gambling tax revenue, was in severe decline.

The sport’s administration in the US appeared not only complacent as to the changing political and economic landscape, but also socially; failing to attract younger, urban audiences to its tracks and losing existing punters to other sports.

What’s worse, the sport seemed to wallow in its insularity and, while no one in the US expected greyhound racing ever to return to the mainstream, it did appear content to remain off-off-Broadway.

Republican politicians in Florida did the maths — tax dollars and votes — and decided that the sport was simply not worth saving.

In addition, the sport in the US undermined itself from within by way of dog-doping and race-fixing scandals. Resulting disciplinary charges against those within the sport were sometimes vigorously contested in court, leaving the sport’s inner workings exposed to public hearings and weakened by massive legal bills.

Media campaigns by animal welfare organisations, one of the most powerful lobbyist groups in the US, due to donations and bequests, also focused on allegedly high fatality rates at Florida tracks. Between 2013 and this year, over 460 greyhounds died at Florida races and this, allied to allegations of poor breeding practices in the sport, inhumane kennel care and the disposal of (still young) racing dogs on retirement, saw polls at the beginning of the Florida campaign go from a 44% minority in favour of banning the sport to a 69% final majority.

Here in Australia, the sport faced extinction in the most populous state (New South Wales) in 2016 when an ABC Four Corners programme (think Prime Time) exposed live baiting practices by some within the sport.

A bill to ban it was passed in the NSW Parliament, but a promise by the sport to carry out a significant animal welfare audit saved it. Effectively, the sport remains on licence, though greyhound racing in Australia now has some of the most sophisticated anti-doping and race rigging programmes of any animal sport and the most extensive retired greyhound welfare, fostering, and adoption schemes in the world.

Commercially, the sport has also been revived and, in October, NSW hosted the world’s richest greyhound race, worth AUS$1m (€635,600) to the winner.

Returning to Ireland, though greyhound racing has deep roots in many parts of the country (I am from one of them) and though the sport is, unusually for Ireland, based on statute, are the lessons from elsewhere being heeded by those who run the sport today?

Ironically, the biggest threat to the sport might come from the very reason it proved commercially attractive 100 years ago: Gambling. The greyhound racing industry, even more so than horse racing, is an adjunct of the gambling industry, epitomised by the recent decision to broadcast early-morning racing from Irish tracks for live TV betting audiences only.

However, and as the quiet desperation of the above move hints, the sport has lost modern punters’ prime-time attention.

In the US, tracks are now being converted into casinos; kennels are being replaced with poker tables; banks of supporters watching live dog-racing and placing bets on-course are being substituted by banks of plasma TVs showing live feeds of major league sport for punters to bet online.

It’s a far change from 1931, when Florida first legalised greyhound racing. That year, the great Mick the Miller, the Irish-bred dog credited with popularising the sport in the UK, retired in front of 40,000 punters at the old Wembley stadium.

Greyhound racing at Wembley is no more and the odds of the sport existing in Britain to celebrate Mick the Miller in 2031 are lengthening.

As for Ireland, if you are a supporter of the sport, would you be confident, even now, that the sport would survive a referendum on its future?

Jack Anderson is professor of sports law, University of Melbourne.