An in-depth look at the changing industry of Greyhound Racing | Business
by: Tiffany Neely
The controversial sport of greyhound racing could be ending, after animal rights groups and loss of profits shake the industry.
“Ever since birth these greyhounds have been cared for by people, a lot of people don’t get to see that,” said Shane Bolender, racing director at Southland Gaming and Racing, which is one of only 22 greyhound racing tracks left in the country.
In 2001, the number of greyhound racing tracks was around 50. Now that number has decreased by almost 50%, in little over a decade.
The decrease is due in part to the business’s loss of revenue and popularity. The work of Animal rights groups in the past decade also contributed to the reduction.
Ann Church is a representative of one of those groups, the ASPCA. She’s also known as “The Greyhound Expert”. She’s been an active advocate against greyhound racing since the 1980s and joined the ASPCA in 2009.
“We believe greyhound racing is a dying industry and the sooner the better,” Church says.
She says she believes that the bad economy that has been plaguing the entire country is taking its toll on the greyhound racing business, and thereby negatively affecting the dogs.
“When a business is failing, they reduce cost, which is reducing the welfare of the dogs,” she continued.
The ASPCA has worked with state officials and other animal advocacy groups such as Grey 2K USA, to shut down racetracks and lobby for the illegalization of greyhound racing in the U.S. state by state.
In 2008, Massachusetts passed a vote banning greyhound racing throughout the state.
Johnny O’Donnell, racing trainer at Southland, was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. He worked at a greyhound track until it the practice was outlawed.
“For greyhounds it’s instinct. It’s easy for birddogs to chase birds and for herding dogs to herd,” O’Donnell said. He’s worked in the greyhound industry as a breeder, trainer, and adoption coordinator since the 1970s.
“This isn’t what they say it is,” O’Donnell says.
He described his job as being 24/7 and that he never stops caring for these dogs. He’s responsible for 78 dogs at Southland.
“I hear people say that they rescued a greyhound and I say from what,” O’Donnell says.
He said that part of his job as a trainer means that he has to change his methods to the personality of each dog. He says he thinks of the dogs as athletes.
Every five to ten days a dog will race. O’Donnell said that the greyhounds are kept in their kennel 18 to 20 hours per day with time outside split throughout the day for training and socializing.
“There’s no way you can justify animals being kept in a cage for 20 hours a day,” said Church.
O’Donnell’s reasoned that the kennel time was due to the opinion that greyhounds are very sensitive to outside environments and that long periods outside could be detrimental for the dogs’ health. He added that with so many dogs each needing time outside, there is a need to limit that time for each dog so that they can all have a turn.
“It’s their little spaces,” O’Donnell said. He detailed that the greyhounds enjoy having their own personal space and downtime.
“It’s our job to make sure they’re healthy,” O’Donnell said. He explained that if a greyhound is injured on the track they have a vet on site to care for the dog. The owner pays for treatment, and the dog receives some recuperation time before he resumes racing.
Bolender said that in every kennel owner’s contract it states that once their greyhound approaches retirement the owner must either return the dog to his or her home state for breeding or adoption, or allow the Greyhound Adoption Option to adopt the greyhound out.
The Greyhound Adoption Option is an organization that adopts out retired greyhound. It also receives the majority of its donations from Southland.
Director of Adoption Option, Vicki Cohen, has worked there for six years.
“We don’t consider ourselves a rescue group,” Cohen said, “These animals are not in danger.”
The Adoption Option does differ from many rescue groups in nearby Memphis, TN. The greyhound that has been within the organization the longest was Gypsy. She’s been retired for less than 9 months. Some Memphis rescue organizations have had dogs go without adoption for over a year.
Chris Barrett has adopted multiple retired racers. She was visiting the Greyhound Adoption Option with hopes of finding a friend for her present retired hound.
“As long as you find them a good home, I don’t have an objection to racing,” Barrett said.
“I’m glad that they have such a program, but not all dogs end up in a similar situation,” Church says.
Church also said that the breeders are the opponents to many Casinos trying to back out of greyhound racing, in search of developing a more profitable revenue with casino gaming.
49-year-old Darren Henry and his wife Rachelle breed greyhounds on their farm a few minutes from Southland.
“I was born in to it” Darren Henry said. For his entire life he’s worked with greyhounds, and was a trainer for 15 years.
His uncle, Darby Henry, was one of the original kennel owners at Southland.
Henry also said that Arkansas provides a “breeders reward program”, which is attracting greyhound breeders from across the country.
After Darby Henry retired, Darren Henry bought his kennels. Henry first raced in Arkansas during 2002, after living there for 10 years. Henry says he was just in the right place at the right time, and although he appreciates the reward program that wasn’t what brought him to Arkansas.
Henry said that greyhound breeding promotes state economy through food purchases, kennel purchases, and veterinary care.
“We love these animals beyond the money,” Rachelle Henry said, “They’re our babies.”
Darren adds that it’s still a business and that they do “have to make a living”.
When their greyhounds retire, the Henrys say they are taken care off.
“We make sure when they’re done making us money, they go to good homes,” Darren said.
Away from the kennels and in the stands of the race tracks changes are happening. Gambling nationwide has started a trend of turning from the live dog races to playing slot machines and the like.
A member of Gambler’s Anonymous, who asked to go by the alias R.G., said that he started betting at Southland when he was 10 years old.
“My family was in it. My grandmother taught me how to read a greyhound book at 10-years-old,” said R.G.
He’s now 54-years-old, and says that gambling nearly cost him everything.
“It eventually cost me two marriages, almost a third, my job, my freedom, and almost my home,” he said.
Although, he lost a lot through his addiction, R.J. didn’t put blame completely on Southland.
“I can’t put it all on the dogs or the casinos, that was my venue. If it wasn’t Southland it would just be somewhere else,” R.J. says. He did however say that Southland does use certain tactics in order to attract players and keep gamblers gambling.
“I believe it’s not so much their fault but they know what they’re doing to us,” he said. He brought up stories of his and other G.A. members where they believed Southland knowingly pushed them further and further into debt.
“I remember when I didn’t have a dime and could go there and get $5,000 and leave more broke than I came,” he said, referring to Southland’s credit system.
R. J. said that toward the end of his time feeding his addiction, he was less and less attracted to live racing and more driven toward simulcast racing.
Simulcast racing is when a person can place a bet on a dog in a race from different parts of the country and watch the race from a television.
“Nobody put a gun to my head and made me do the things I want. But they know what gambler’s want,” said R.J. This was his 9th year with Gambler’s Anonymous.
As of yet Church says that no animal mistreatment complaints have been received regarding Southland Gaming and Racing.
One comment repeated by Bolender, O’Donnell, Cohen, Barrett, and the Henrys, “They love to run.”
Church responded, “These dogs love to run, but they’re locked up in cages.”
All photos taken by: Tiffany Neely
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