At the finish? Dog racing’s future up to Florida voters

Terry Spencer
Associated Press

West Palm Beach, Fla. — Several times a day, eight muzzled greyhounds spring from boxes at Palm Beach Kennel Club’s starting line and hurtle forward in a blurred mass.

A couple of hundred bettors watch from air-conditioned stands built for thousands. Lean speed machines with names like Bull Gator and Open Throttle chase a mechanical lure for a third of a mile, their long strides propelling them past 40 mph. The greyhounds cross the finish line with tails wagging – except for the occasional injured dog carried off by workers.

The scene soon may be history. The sport’s demise has long been predicted, with 50 U.S. tracks closing since the 1990s. On Nov. 6 Florida voters will decide on a measure banning greyhound racing by 2021 that may kill it nationally.

Amendment 13’s supporters, including animal rights groups, say dogs at Florida’s 11 tracks frequently are locked in crates up to 23 hours a day, some suffering abuse — allegations trainers vehemently deny — and risk gruesome injuries on the track.

“This industry is on its way out, but meanwhile dogs are suffering,” said Kate MacFall, Florida director for the Humane Society of the United States.

But racing supporters say greyhounds are treated better than most pets and are happiest when competing. They say injured dogs get quality veterinary treatment and racing opponents exaggerate the frequency of injuries to garner donations. Most injured or slow dogs are adopted, not destroyed, they say, and the industry supports 3,000 jobs.

“If reincarnation exists, people should want to come back as a racing dog,” said Palm Beach trainer Arthur Agganis, who has been running greyhounds for 43 years and has five employees. He said his 120 dogs are outside, off-leash three hours daily and get walks, massages and whirlpool baths.

He said the industry works to eliminate abusive trainers: “We police our own business — if we see something, see anybody do anything at all wrong, … they are out.”

Opponents, however, say greyhound racing is inherently cruel, pointing to government reports of abused, drugged, injured and dead dogs. State records show that, on average, two of the state’s approximately 8,000 racing dogs die of injury or illness weekly.