The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Sports

July 9, 2014

Dog tracks cornered by wagering woes, racing foes

MIAMI (AP) — A mural-sized photograph at Flagler Dog Track celebrates the good old days, decades gone: Men and women in their finest clothes lean against the fence to catch a glimpse of the greyhounds, the stands emblazoned with red, white and blue bunting, radio men perched in a booth to bring the action to fans at home.

Outside, on a recent Wednesday afternoon, the trumpet sounded, the track announcer introduced the dogs, and almost no one was there to see it. Only a couple dozen patrons looked down from the 7,000-seat grandstand.

"On a good day we can have 100 people on the stands, and they are mostly smokers who come out from the casino floor," said Isadore "Izzy" Havenick, whose family has owned the track since 1953.

The dog racing business, at once doomed and propped up by casino gambling, has come to a crossroads.

Greyhound racing's decline began years ago with the spread of casino-style gambling. To appease track operators, states gave them fat subsidies from the new gambling revenue.

The tracks themselves jumped into the casino business too, with licenses that often forced them to offer a minimum number of race days, an arrangement called "coupling."

But betting on live racing has fallen from almost $1 billion in 1990 to $258 million last year in Florida, home to 12 of the 21 tracks that regularly hold live dog races in the U.S.

The races have become a never-watched sideshow to the profitable poker rooms and slot machines.

The owners of many tracks — along with ghost tracks that now offer only simulcast racing — are hoping to survive long enough for states to let them drop the facade of dog racing altogether and just run casinos.

Lawmakers, mindful of the interests of deep-pocketed casino operators who don't want the unfettered competition, seem to have other ideas.

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