In the midterm elections, now just days away, voters in Florida are considering ending a nearly century old pastime that once filled grandstands, secured jobs and brought in tax revenue. Lisa Fletcher tells why critics say Greyhound racing is now on shaky ground.
A recent wet Thursday afternoon at the Sanford Orlando Kennel Club. These four-legged racers can reach speeds of 40 miles an hour. It's all over in seconds. This track, one of the very first in Florida, built in the era of Roosevelt's new deal then, a symbol of the restoration of American prosperity. Mitch Cohen is the general manager.
Lisa: How long has the Kennel Club been here?
Mitch Cohen : Since 1935.
Lisa: It's a piece of Florida history.
Cohen: It is. Big time. It is.
And history is where you'll find greyhound racings' heyday. Decades ago, stands across the country were full, and the revenue from the bets placed provided a steady income. But that was then. Since 1990, dozens of greyhound racing tracks have closed across the country from Arizona to Massachusetts. Greyhound betting has fallen an estimated 70 percent and forty states have outlawed greyhound racing. These days, just 17 active tracks remain, eleven of which are in Florida.
Lisa: So, how's business?
Cohen: Good. Business is good. Now, we're up 9.6% versus last year, year to date. So we're happy.
According to state figures, this track was the only one that posted a profit last year. Those remaining reported operating losses totaling nearly 35-million dollars. What's kept many tracks going is a law that links greyhound racing with other forms of gambling. To have a gaming license, the business is required to run dogs. It's a system Florida's attorney general Pam Bondi says is a losing bet for taxpayers.
Pam Bondi: So, just in 2013, the state lost $33 million in revenue because the cost of regulating the tracks and the dogs exceeded the money coming in from dog racing. It's a huge loss for Florida taxpayers because the state's losing money, the tracks are losing money, and these dogs are losing their lives as a result of it.
Political Ad: They die from cardiac arrest. Broken necks. Broken legs.
Bondi and a coalition of animal protection groups are backing Amendment 13 to end dog racing, while leaving other types of gambling untouched, and they have support on both sides of the aisle.
Political Ad: I'm a Republican. I'm a Democrat. We're both voting yes on Amendment 13 because we both agree that dog racing is cruel and inhumane.
But those arguments don't play here, just outside Orlando, where Deborah Elliott is the third generation of her family to raise greyhounds for racing. Rising most days before 5 to tend to her dogs, she knows the names of each and every one.
Deborah Elliott: They're named before their eyes are opened. They are treated like the valuable animals they are. I can't explain how much we love these dogs and we're privileged to handle them, to train them, to raise them until they're a little over a year old when they go off to dog college and learn how to run around the track.
A proud supporter of racing, she says the upcoming vote would essentially destroy the industry in her state.
Lisa: You're opposed to Amendment 13.
Elliott: Oh my gosh. Yes.
Elliott: Well, amendment 13 is bad for Florida and in many, many respects. First of all, it's going to put 8,000 dogs out of work in Florida. More than 3,000 people are gonna lose their livelihood. I raise dogs. I have four full time employees. They work here. This is how they feed their family.
Lisa: When the opposition talks about lost jobs --
Bondi: Frankly, if you're doing this to animals, you don't deserve to have that job. You shouldn't be employed in that industry the way these dogs are being treated.
And those hoping to convince Florida voters to end dog racing have found an ally in the first family. Stepping into the debate: Lara Trump.
Lisa: Republicans are typically for business, we've got the lobbyists and those opposing Amendment 13, saying, "This is going to cost the state a lot of money. It's gonna cost the state jobs if we shut down this industry." It doesn't really sync up with what we thought we would be about.
Lara Trump: Well I'm 100 percent pro-business and pro-job, but I'm also pro-animal and pro-doing the right thing. And I think what the reality of this situation is that, if we get rid of dog racing, if Amendment 13 passes in Florida, that is not going to mean that people are being put out of jobs. These gambling facilities are going to remain open, that's really the beauty of the situation here, and passing this.
Back at the track, the races continue despite the rain. Previous attempts to ban dog racing in florida have failed, but campaigners see 2018 as their best chance yet. Still, if revenue and attendance are any indicators, most people decided this issue long ago with their feet and their wallets.
Right now, the vote is close and because it would change the state constitution, it has to win by at least 60 percent.