by Dennis McKeon
There seems to be more than a bit of confusion among the readership as to how the business of greyhound racing works, and how it evolved—or if you prefer, “de-volved”, to its current state, and what can be done about that little bugaboo.
While I’m sure there are others here who might do a better job of explaining this, I figured I might start the lure rolling. I hope to present here, a very rough outline of how things have come to pass, just so no one will be entirely in the dark. I’m certain I’ll manage to piss off someone from every faction involved. Tough.
There is a lot truth to the old saying that the greyhound is “the poor man’s racehorse”. That is still true today, though certainly not as alluring a prospect as it was some 50-70 years ago.
For our purposes, we’ll discuss ”modern” greyhound racing, and skip the days of the gypsy racetracks.
Florida and Massachusetts were the centers of racing east of the Mississippi, when Joseph Linsey decided to offer “big money” to greyhound owners, in the form of his then unprecedented $25K American Greyhound Derby, first run at Taunton, MA, in 1949.
This single race, more than any one individual or event, revolutionized greyhound racing, and brought it into the mainstream, in localities where greyhound racing was offered, and even, occasionally, to national attention. Never had anyone heard of such money being offered for winning a dog race. It was utterly preposterous. And so the media, as they are wont to do in their abject perversity, paid some attention.
Other tracks soon jumped on board with Mr. Linsey and Taunton, and offered similar purses for “derby” races of their own. Pretty soon, greyhound racing had achieved a respectable level of credibility. The tracks and the states were making money, and local breeding colonies began to spring up, and business networks around them were developed. Things were on the upswing.
At that time, racing was seasonal, and where there was a concentration of tracks in a relatively small area, racing dates were granted so as not to conflict. Greyhound racing kennels worked a “circuit”, and there was great demand for their “racing product”. As there was no racing in New England during the winter, kennels from the north made like “snowbirds”, or spelled their greyhounds for the winter.
Almost everyone in a given locality knew someone who either raced greyhounds, raised greyhounds, trained greyhounds, or worked at the track in some capacity. Greyhound racing was a vibrant and vital part of local and state economies, wherever it existed. The revenues it generated for the towns and states were easy to assess, and required a minimum of investment. It became part of the local lore and culture. A greyhound professional was a respected and valued member of the community.
In those days, if you had the land, the skills and some luck, and if you did not run afoul of the powers that be, you could make yourself a nice little living raising and racing a few litters a year.
Because racing was seasonal, it was well received and attended wherever it re-opened. There were no matinee races, and Sundays were dark.
Racing had done well. So well in fact, that in the 1970s, the states wanted more and more of it. They wanted to increase racing dates, to add matinees, and here in NE, they wanted to begin racing year round.
There was mixed reaction to this among greyhound professionals. Generally, those larger entities were open to expansion, and smaller operators, not so much.
Then, in 1975, over a dispute as to the percentage of the pari-mutual handle that was to be allotted to the kennels in Florida, a strike took place, affecting tracks in Florida and Massachusetts. It was a disaster for all parties. It disrupted racing and racing revenues, and it fractured the racing community, as strikebreakers were brought in to take the place of striking kennels.
When all the dust settled, greyhound racing then embarked upon an unprecedented expansion. To punish strikers and to reinforce the idea that this must never happen again, strikebreakers were, in some instances, granted racing privileges at some venues where they had not raced prior to the strike. While the strikers were, for the most part “forgiven”, things would never be quite the same again.
Now, where there weren’t before, there would be contracts signed between the kennels and the tracks, insuring a steady supply of greyhounds, as well as complete, unquestioning obedience to whatever the tracks or the states might decree. If you didn’t like that, they’d be more than happy to hand you your papers, send you on your way to whichever greener pasture you had in mind, and/or see you in court.
Now, an unfortunate result of all this miraculous expansion, was that the smaller, local breeder was being squeezed out of the equation. As racing dates and performances increased, by as much as 50%, the value of each greyhound race began to decrease, inversely. This was acceptable to the larger racing and breeding operations, who had the resources to cope with a racing format that had now become a “numbers game”. The more starts you could get, the more money you could make. As long as you had an endless daisy chain of greyhounds, turned them out, fed them and wormed them, you could rake. However, in any given locality, the entertainment dollar of the public is finite, as racing would soon learn.
The guy or gal who raised 20 greyhounds a year, to keep a string of 10-15 active racers, was now at a distinct disadvantage. Not only were the purses now significantly reduced, but so was the value of each of their greyhounds. Whereas in bygone days they could get by with winning a grade A race and a couple of grade B or C races every week or so, and running “in the money” half of the time, they now needed more—quite a bit more. And no longer were locals “automatically” allowed to race under their own “brand”. Unless they had a “booking” and a contract, they would be forced to lease their greyhounds to someone who did. Which meant that they’d see only about half of the return on investment they might have otherwise. There were no “right to race” laws in MA or FL, so many of these smaller breeders just threw out the anchor, rather than expand beyond their capacities and comfort zones.
As a result, local breeding and racing communities and concerns, and the business networks they had developed, began to disappear. So too, did their political influence. Many of the larger kennels were not from the states where they raced, and the local and state politicians were not directly answerable to them.
So racing had essentially evolved into a competition of who could get the most starts at the best “bookings”, rather than who had the skills to compete with a limited supply of dogs, and to maximize the potential of each and every greyhound, each and every time they went postward.
Things went along swimmingly for a while after the purge, if you were a well-monied and well stocked racing business. Then, as the states realized that over-exposure had begun to bleed racing dry, and the humane challenges of a young, urbane and modern culture, both within and outside of racing, had again attracted the jaundiced eye of the media, casinos became the focus, and the states and (some) tracks did a juke step.
Some would have been happy to throw racing entirely overboard, but because he voting public and some Native Americans would have the final say on casinos, they chose to have their cake and eat it too, and they did an end-around the democratic process. They essentially “bribed” the racing kennels at existing venues which sought slot machines and other gaming entertainment, with a nice percentage of the “take”, if they would just shut up, take the money, and not make too much of a public fuss. Then everyone would be happy—the public, the tracks, the states and the kennels (everyone except the Indians, that is).
While most greyhound professionals realized that this was the beginning of the end, and that eventually these promises would be broken or reneged upon, they were pretty much forced to “ride the wave”. Where else were they going to go?
Today, as the National Greyhound Association flirts with sinking below 1000 members, and as fewer and fewer kennels control more and more of racing opportunity nation-wide, the threat of even further contraction looms. The infamous “decoupling” question is simply code for, “we got what we wanted, and now we don’t need you any longer.”
The other night, there was a nice stakes race run at some track or other—I forget which one. The eight finalists were from only three kennels. There’s nothing like competition, right?
This is the future of racing, under the corrupt and patently unconstitutional “contract booking” system, where taxpayers and property owners, who live in a town or a state, cannot race their own greyhounds under their own brand without a contract, or without being forced into a partnership with a kennel who does.
So for those who wish to see change within the industry, to betterment of all, and to the breed as well, this is the fundamental wrong that must be made right. Without the right to race, and Right-To-Race laws, there is no incentive for new entrepreneurs to engage, no local grassroots political base, and eventually there will be only a handful of Corporate kennels to “put on the show”, if the show is to go on at all. And at that rate, what will be the point?