Florida Dog Tracks Struggling

In 1990, wagers on live dog races in Florida totaled nearly $1 billion. Last year that figure dropped to $258 million. Some greyhound tracks try to survive on casino tax subsidies, simulcasting and promotional gimmicks, while owners push to "decouple" struggling racing from profitable gambling.

In 1931, Florida became the first stage to legalize betting on greyhound racing. Now home to 12 of the 21 greyhound racetracks that regularly hold live races in the U.S., wagers on live dog racing in Florida have dropped from nearly billion in 1990 to 8 million last year.

Some racetracks have survived on state subsidies from casino tax revenue and from simulcasting. Others depend on “coupling,” which allows slots and poker but requires a minimum number of race days.

In the recent legislative session, lawmakers decided not to approve a plan that would have would have allowed tracks to keep gambling and stop offering races. Opponents consider “decoupling” expanded gambling. But it has brought together racetrack casino operators, who want to quit offering unprofitable races, and animal rights groups that want to end greyhound racing altogether. Carey Theil, executive director of the anti-racing group Grey2K USA, said, “When decoupling passes, it will lead to a slow and gradual end” of the industry.

Some dog racing tracks have tried special promotions to boost attendance. At Melbourne Greyhound Park, a smaller track in central Florida, the biggest event of the year, a simulcast of the Kentucky Derby, attracts around 3,000 patrons. But gimmicks like “Doggy Dinner Theater” and races with dogs named for celebrities have not drawn the crowds, said Isadore “Izzy” Havenick, whose family has owned Flagler Dog Track in Stuart, Florida since 1953.

Certain horseracing interests see decoupling as a threat to their own industry. According to the industry clearinghouse Jockey Club, wagers at thoroughbred tracks dropped from just over $15 billion in 2003 to less than $11 billion in 2013. Only a few of the larger racetracks are making a profit without casinos to support them.

Lonny Powell, chief executive officer at the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association, said decoupling “could set a dangerous precedent for all breeds of racing.”

At Hialeah Park, however, officials recently announced a new simulcasting theater, which will offer parimutuel wagering on horseracing from major tracks in the U.S. and worldwide, will be built as part of a $60 million expansion to be completed late next year. Most of the renovation will focus on the complex’s casino.

Hialeah President John J. Brunetti Jr. said, “With the recent closing of the Poker Room at Calder Race Course, we believe this is the perfect time to increase the size and amenities of the Hialeah Park Casino Poker Room. In addition to more poker tables, we will also expand the dining facilities and sports bar in the Poker Room area.”

As part of the project, the casino will add 235 slots and gaming machines, and 12 additional tables will be installed in the poker room. In addition, an overhead cover will provide protection for patrons and performers at the Fountain Terrace outdoor entertainment venue.