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Politics and Greyhound Racing in Florida

Politics and Greyhound Racing in Florida

Over 648 employees receive a paycheck from bestbet of Orange Park with an average annualized earning of $37,569.  This is above the median average wage for Clay County, Florida and makes bestbet of Orange Park not only one of the largest employers in Clay, but a high-wage employer for Clay.  

Read full article here - by Tia Mitchell, Florida Times-Union - July 21, 2017

The recent discovery of cocaine in a dozen racing greyhounds has focused attention on a mostly forgotten practice that in Florida is being perpetuated by politics. The state’s 12 dog tracks took in $240 million in bets during the year that ended in June 2016, half the amount wagered a decade before. The state says it now spends more money regulating the greyhound industry than it receives in tax revenue from the races.

Last month, First Coast News reported that a trainer at Bestbet Orange Park had his license suspended after 12 dogs under his care tested positive for cocaine. The head of a nonprofit that monitors dog tracks around the country called it “the largest greyhound drug case in American history.” Another trainer’s license was revoked in May after cocaine was found in the urine of five dogs that raced at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg. Earlier this year, First Coast News reported that 367 dogs have died at Florida greyhound tracks since 2013, including 52 in Orange Park.

But dogs still race in Florida because the tracks must exist if pari-mutuel companies want to keep open their more-lucrative poker rooms. Under state law, only pari-mutuel facilities like horse tracks, jai alai frontons and greyhound kennel clubs can operate card rooms. If greyhound tracks stop their races, the card rooms would have to close.

There have been many attempts in the Legislature to change the laws that tie the operation of card rooms and casinos with pari-mutuel activity. All of these attempts at “decoupling” have failed for a variety of economic and political reasons. Lawmakers said they will continue to try. “If you isolate decoupling of dogs, I think that you probably would have a majority of legislators, including myself, who believe it makes little sense to require under law an activity that no one wants to watch and many people consider inhumane,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who for several years chaired the Senate committee that regulates gambling.

Sen. Dana Young said, “The issue is disturbing because unlike some of the other decoupling issues in terms of jai alai and saddle racing, in this situation you have dogs that are being bred for the sole purpose of racing with no one watching. They’re racing career is two or three years max. And then the lucky ones get adopted out, but the vast majority are euthanized.”

While serving in the Florida House, Young twice convinced her colleagues to pass bills that decoupled greyhound racing from operating card rooms. Both times, the Senate refused to concur. Young, R-Tampa, said she will continue to work for a bill that decouples greyhound racing from operating card rooms, with nothing else attached. “Is it possible? Yes,” she said. “Likely? No.”

Greyhound owners, breeders and trainers are a powerful force in Tallahassee. They have argued that decoupling will kill their industry and thousands of related jobs. They also make the argument that Florida voters should have a say in whether standalone card rooms and casinos should be allowed to replace longstanding pari-mutuel facilities.

“There are a lot of legislators that realize if you don’t have live pari-mutuels you are going to have mini casinos,” said Jack Cory, a lobbyist for the greyhound industry. “I think there are a lot of them that realize if you decouple greyhounds then jai alai is next and horse racing is next.”

Bradley also was dubious about the prospects of any bill that focused on decoupling only for the greyhound industry and leaving the current laws in place for jai alai and horse racing. Whenever decoupling comes up, Bradley said, the conversation inevitably shifts to other aspects of gambling where the support is less universal, and that makes it more difficult to reach agreement.

“What really is the impediment in any gaming legislation is the fact that you can’t do it piecemeal,” he said. “If you try to only deal with decoupling or only deal with another issue related to gaming, as the bill starts to travel all of the other gaming issues get amended on to the bill and everything becomes related to everything.”

The Senate introduced a comprehensive gambling proposal during the 2017 session that, among other things, allowed greyhound, jai alai, harness and quarter horse tracks to end live racing. Thoroughbred horse tracks also were allowed to decouple, although they had a limited window to do so and were offered incentives to continue racing.

The House, however, had its own gambling legislation that essentially took decoupling off the table for the next 20 years. The House bill said any changes to the number of live events required of pari-mutuel facilities that operate card rooms would require the state to renegotiate its comprehensive gambling agreement with the Seminole Indian tribe.

The House and Senate also disagreed on whether eight counties, including Duval, where voters approved adding slot machines in card rooms should be given the OK. No compromise could be reached by the end of the session, so nothing passed.

State law says dog tracks that want to open card rooms must keep their level of racing roughly the same as before their card rooms opened. Even as demand for racing has declined, they cannot adjust the number of races without jeopardizing the status of their poker rooms.

Bestbet conducts enough greyhound racing at its Orange Park location to keep the company’s three pari-mutuel permits in good standing. One of those permits is used to operate the Jacksonville poker room, which is the state’s largest, and another is for a location in St. Johns County that is currently shuttered.

Through a spokesman, Bestbet President Jamie Shelton demurred when asked whether he would end or reduce live greyhound racing in Orange Park if a change in law allowed it. “At this time, there is nothing specific for us to respond to,” Shelton said in an email statement, adding his company will monitor any changes proposed by the Legislature. 

But he was more direct when responding to questions as part of a 2013 gaming study commissioned by the Legislature to provide a comprehensive review of legalized gambling in Florida and its economic impacts. Shelton told the researchers that no matter what is done to try to prop up greyhound racing, interest from customers is no longer there. He referenced declines in the track’s handle, or the amount bet on races.

“We can see it by our live handle. The older folks are not being replaced,” Shelton is quoted as saying. “There are just too many other things to do out there today. Watching a greyhound race is not at the top of most people’s agenda.”

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