Florida Bans Greyhound Racing After State Law Kept It Going for Years

It would have been better to let the sport fail on its own.


Francois Loubser |

Voters in Florida decisively banned greyhound racing in the 2018 midterms after a bitter showdown between animal rights activists and the breeding industry. But the entire debate might have been avoided if the state hadn't essentially required greyhound racing in the first place. Were it not for an ill-advised 1997 law, the sport would have likely crumbled under its own weight years ago.

State records show that, adjusting for inflation, money wagered on the long-legged canines fell from $1.5 billion in 1992 to $200 million in 2017. In order to stay solvent, racetracks increasingly relied on revenue from other forms of gambling. But in an effort to resuscitate the ailing dog racing industry (and to limit betting elsewhere), Florida passed a "coupling" law in 1997, prohibiting establishments from housing card rooms unless the facilities are "pari-mutuel"—that is, if they host wagers on jai alai, horse races, or greyhound races.

"You ended up with a bunch of racetracks that were essentially card rooms that happened to have dogs running around in circles with no one betting on the dogs," says Carey Theil, executive director of Grey2K USA, which advocates for greyhound welfare.

Establishments that once hosted spirited races pivoted to poker games and slot machines. Those have been wildly profitable, even as greyhound racing has been anything but. Yet the coupling law forced casino owners to continue the money-losing sport.

And those races lost a lot of money. According to state records, Florida racetracks lost an average of $34 million annually on greyhound racing from 2012 to 2016—not because they wanted to stay in the business, but because they had to.

"These numbers make it abundantly clear the public interest is waning," said Dana Young, then a Republican member of the Florida House of Representatives, in 2011. "For us to create a false market for the dog breeding product at the expense of taxpayers simply makes no sense."

Several attempts were made in the state legislature to amend the practice and decouple the mutually inclusive racing-gambling marriage, but they all failed. Much of the opposition to those reforms was driven by the greyhound breeding industry.

"It was our feeling that if the tracks would be allowed to bring in other gaming without the mandate of having greyhound racing, that they would've probably closed down the greyhound racing," says Jim Gartland, executive director of the National Greyhound Association. "We just didn't think it was fair."

Apart from the economic concerns, animal welfare advocates argue the dogs are mistreated, drugged, and more susceptible to injury and death on the tracks. Those in the business dispute those claims.

But the evidence offers at least some support for the notion that the greyhounds are subject to unsavory conditions. According to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, 492 greyhound deaths were reported at Florida racetracks from May 2013 to July 2018—and that doesn't include the ones who were dragged off the premises and put down. The agency also recorded 949 greyhound drug positives between 2001 and 2017. The most common was Benzoylecgonine, the primary metabolite found in cocaine.

Gartland claims that the measure will cost the state 3,000 jobs, a figure that Theil says is "pulled out of the air"—the National Greyhound Association only boasted about 1,100 members nationwide at the end of 2018. What's more, the regulatory costs to the state likely exceed any tax benefits.

"Over a ten year period, the amount of state revenue, state and licensing fees that flow to the state, dropped from about fourteen million to about two million," said Tony Glover, who oversaw Florida's greyhound racing industry from 2016 to 2017.

But Amendment 13 was a solution to a problem that wouldn't have existed if the state had heeded business owners. "They wanted a market-friendly approach that would have given them the choice as to whether they raced dogs or not," Theil tells Reason. "The greyhound breeders opposed that, and what they got was Amendment 13—a complete prohibition."