Kennel industry fights back as legislators push to reduce dog racing

Greyhounds race around the final turn at the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track on Friday, April 1, 2011, in Bonita Springs. Legislation currently being considered in Tallahassee would no longer require the Naples-Fort Myers track, along with other tracks around the state, to race greyhounds in order to continue their poker rooms.  David Albers/Staff

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Greyhounds race around the final turn at the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track on Friday, April 1, 2011, in Bonita Springs. Legislation currently being considered in Tallahassee would no longer require the Naples-Fort Myers track, along with other tracks around the state, to race greyhounds in order to continue their poker rooms. David Albers/Staff

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TALLAHASSEE — John Weber spent $20,000 to buy seven dogs last year — pocket change in a multimillion-dollar industry that supplies 13 greyhound tracks across the state.

But for Weber, 67, a retired Immokalee teacher and football coach, that's a lot of money.

"I spent $20,000 on dog racing because the law says they have to race," said Weber, whose investment return is now tied to a bill moving through the Legislature that would end a state mandate coupling greyhound racing and pari-mutuels with card rooms.

Beyond Weber, the bill puts 3,000 jobs at risk along with $50 million in the kennel industry, according to figures from the Florida Greyhound Association, which represents greyhound owners and kennel operators.

The association is at odds with pari-mutuels like the Naples Fort Myers Greyhound Track, which is forced to run the highest number of greyhound races — 3,200 per year — in the state despite shrinking demand.

On Tuesday, animal advocates stood behind pictures of muzzled dogs in rusty cages and two spindly greyhounds on leashes. Groups including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals say the practice is cruel and call for an end to live racing. The bill's sponsors agree, and add that state regulations on the industry work to its detriment.

"When you start thinking about the fact that you've got these animals running around the track, day in and day out, in the heat of the day, that many times, and you've got no one watching, it doesn't make any sense," said Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, referring specifically to the Bonita Springs track.

Young's bill and its Senate counterpart, sponsored by Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, still must pass committees before reaching the House or Senate floor, where last year the same bills died.

The legislation would eliminate state regulations that require pari-mutuel facilities that also have card rooms to run nearly as many races as they ran when they first acquired their licenses. Pari-mutuel owners say declining attendance has made running so many races a burden.

Sachs and Young, surrounded by a cadre of animal advocates at Humane Lobby Day in the Capitol, spoke to the government burden on the free market.

But the kennel industry says legislating in favor of the pari-mutuels is legislating against dog owners and caretakers. If a bill becomes law in March, pari-mutuels would drastically reduce the number of races and send a shock to hundreds of dog owners, like Weber, who derive their earnings from fast dogs, said Jack Cory, a spokesman for the Florida Greyhound Association.

"We have a lot of small business folks, and these have always been our political strength," Cory said. "These dogs are feeding people's kids."

If pari-mutuels were to stop racing altogether, Cory estimates 3,000 jobs connected to dog racing and $5 million in state revenue would be lost.

He acknowledged the flagging demand but blames it on the weak economy and supports easing the racing requirements over time. He said he has recommended cutting back 10 percent per year over a decade.

Isadore Havenick, an executive with the Bonita Springs track's parent company, said a gradual decrease still leaves an unfair burden on his track, which runs 800 more races than the next highest in Florida. He added that without the state requirement, he could invest profit in other parts of the business and create other jobs.

Havenick said the Bonita Springs track would not stop racing entirely if permitted to do so.

"Dog people are in favor of cutting back," Weber said. "We run too many races. But how far are we going to cut back?"

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