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After 90 Years, Greyhound Dog Racing Comes To An End In Sarasota

May 1, 2019

On a recent afternoon at the Sarasota Kennel Club, the track’s grandstand is mostly empty, but for a handful of spectators leaning against a wire fence and sipping beer from plastic cups as a mechanical rabbit buzzes by.  

With the ring of the starting bell, eight greyhounds wearing numbered jersey's spring from the gate and dash around a quarter mile dirt track.

Greyhounds have been racing in Sarasota since 1929. People started betting on the outcome a few years later when Florida became the first state in the country to legalize dog racing. 

That all ends on Saturday when the kennel club hosts its last live greyhound race.

Last November, Floridians overwhelmingly approved Amendment 13, which bans greyhound racing after December 31, 2020. 

The Sarasota Kennel Club is one of the state’s 11 dog tracks that isn’t waiting until the deadline to comply with the mandate.  Its owners say it will give them time to reevaluate their business plan.

Banning greyhound racing in Florida has been a long-held goal for animal rights advocates who believe the sport is inherently abusive to the dogs.

But this isn't a story about the new law, or whether greyhound racing is bad or good. Those arguments have already taken place. 

This is about what will happen to the dogs and the people who have made their living at this track.

Nancy Guimond is the Paddock Judge at the Sarasota Kennel Club. Her job is to identify which greyhounds run in what races and to supervise the "leadouts," handlers who escort the dogs between the kennels and the starting gate.

"A lot of these people are late 40's, early 50's,” she said. “They're not trainable again. You know, if they get a job in a Dollar Store as a cashier they'll be lucky."

Guimond says there's one word that sums up the end of her 35 year career and that’s heartbreak.

“Just in my department alone, I have a lot of kids that work with the dogs. Come the end of this, these kids are going to be back out on the streets with no jobs. The kennel people that I've worked with for years and years, and that's all they know is greyhound racing, they love the animals. Now they're going to have to shut the doors, turn around, and never look back.”

The Sarasota Kennel Club was once a destination for the affluent seeking an entertaining evening.
Credit Cathy Carter / WUSF Public Media

During the racing season, the Sarasota Kennel Club employs about 300 people at the track and its busy poker room. Come Saturday, the dog trainers will be out of a job, along with the leadouts, the kennel workers, and most of the people running the betting windows and concession stands.

And what about the greyhounds?

Statewide, experts predict that about 6,000 dogs will need new homes once racing is phased out for good.

In Sarasota, Sue Peake of Fast Friends Greyhound Adoption is already matching former racers with new families. She's a big fan of the breed.

“If you have a greyhound, you're never alone,” she said. “They follow you from room to room - even the bathroom. People think they need a lot of exercise. They don't. They love to run but they don't require it every minute of the day.”

Like nearly 100 greyhound adoption groups across the country, Fast Friends was opposed to the racing ban. One reason, they say, is that with so many dogs becoming available at the same time, displaced dogs could be euthanized.

Peake says the majority of racing dogs go on to live second lives as family pets and she feels her friends in the greyhound industry have been unfairly portrayed as animal abusers.  

"If people would realize how much time and effort the trainers and the kennel people put into these dogs, it would have made a difference because my trainers, they worry about their dogs and they take care of their dogs.”

But as last November's vote to ban greyhound racing showed, society is at odds with this industry. Forty states have already done away with it or outlawed it over concerns about animal cruelty.

And greyhound racing is also out of sync with the way people choose to entertain themselves - including the way they gamble.

"The young person today wants something that's quick,” said Thomas Bowersox, the Director of Racing at the Sarasota Kennel Club. “They can go on the internet now and bet. There's a lot of ways people can have a fast return on their money."

The Sarasota Kennel Club’s One Eyed Jacks Poker Room will remain open after live greyhound racing ends. People can also bet on simulcast racing from other states.
Credit Cathy Carter / WUSF Public Media

Bowersox has been with the club for nearly 60 years. That's long enough to remember a time when the track's grandstand was filled with fans.

Now, he hopes there's still a job for him in the organization.

The popular poker room and its off-track betting operations are staying in business. People can still bet on greyhounds, thoroughbreds and harness racing from around the country.

On Saturday, after the last greyhound crosses the finish line, kennel workers will pack their bags but the racing dogs are headed to a different track in Florida's Panhandle.

Come Sunday, the only option for Sarasota fans will be to put a credit card in a kiosk and place a wager on a race that's happening somewhere else.