SARASOTA, FLORIDA — The sun hadn’t yet risen over the Sarasota Kennel Club, and Deb Linn was wrist deep in 100 pounds of bloody meat. She had been been up since 4:30 a.m., when she made the 45-minute commute south from Ellenton, a small town where the rent is more affordable than in the wealthy beach city of Sarasota. She was 18 years old when she first started working with greyhounds in her home state of Wisconsin. She’s 50 now and stood over a fiberglass trough inside her kennel, mixing white, powdered vitamins into the raw beef for her dogs’ breakfast. I could make out thin white lines on her tanned arms, marks from where the dogs had scratched her over the years. The dogs were beside themselves in anticipation of food, filling the room with their barking and rapping at the crates with their paws, but it was much quieter than usual. Just a few weeks ago Deb had 102 dogs in her kennel. Now there were half as many. By tomorrow, there would be no dogs.

It was May 4, the morning of the last race.

“My main thing is to get through today,” Deb said. “Doing the dogs just takes up all my time and I can’t even plan a future or take college classes until we’re done here.” The barking got louder and she softly told the dogs to hush, the food was coming. “It’s not a job,” she said, heaping gobs of meat into a bowl on a measuring weight. “It’s my life, it’s all I know. I have no idea what I’m gonna do.”

Back in November 2018, the people of Florida passed Amendment 13 with an overwhelming 69 percent of the vote. The amendment called for the banning of all dog racing in the state by the end of 2020. Florida was the sport’s last great refuge. Forty states already had laws prohibiting dog racing, and of the 17 tracks left in the United States, 11 of them are in Florida. The sport is now forbidden by the Florida constitution, more or less putting an end to dog racing in the United States.

Florida surprised everybody by doing the “right thing” for a change. The protracted battle between animal rights activists and the dog racing industry was over, and it appeared the side of righteousness had prevailed. Grey2K USA Worldwide, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, led the charge along with groups like the Humane Society and PETA. They spent more than $3 million in their campaign for Amendment 13. The dog racing industry put up just over half a million dollars to fight it. Commercials in support of the amendment showed sad-eyed dogs locked behind steel grates, backed by ominous string music. Voters were urged to find their humanity and put an end to the cruel sport.

The dog racing industry claimed allegations of abuse were lies made up by crooked nonprofits, and argued that abruptly dissolving dog racing would overload adoption agencies and put the dogs at risk of euthanasia. Their message did not resonate with the voters of Florida.

I grew up in Sarasota, just a couple miles south of the track, but not once did I go see the dogs. The track always seemed seedy and outdated, and the first time I’d ever set foot inside the Sarasota Kennel club was when I followed my more adventurous friends to play Texas Hold’em.

More than a decade later, I returned and managed the forbidden—I got to see the dog kennels a month or so before the last race. Deb let me in to meet her dogs one morning while she turned them out, cleaned their bedding, and hung plastic muzzles on the crates for the matinee races (I wasn’t supposed to be back there, per state regulations, but no one stopped me). Deb, like most trainers, does not own the dogs. The dogs are owned by investors throughout the country. She doesn’t own the kennel, either. She and more than a dozen other trainers are independent contractors who are hired to take care of the dogs.

There were 11 kennels, concrete structures about the size of a two bedroom bungalow behind the track, holding anywhere between 650 and 750 dogs. Outside of each kennel is a dirt plot—a “turn out pen”—bordered with chain link fencing where the dogs stretched their legs and went to the bathroom. The first thing I noticed was the smell—a sharp mixture of ammonia and warm dog oils. None of the people in the kennel noticed it anymore. Deb let the dogs out, females first. They bounded out of their crates, ears back, tongues lolling, and took turns pouncing on me. Greyhounds are weird-looking dogs, all sinew and bone with short-furred coats clinging tightly to their long bodies. They come in only a few different colors and patterns: white, black, and brindle, and some with mixed patches.

The dogs start racing at around 18 months old. Some will race until they’re six. Though the males are considerably bigger than the females, the genders compete against each other, and I asked Deb if that gave the males them a competitive edge.

“No, not really,” she said. “It usually comes down to who has the most heart.”

She led me outside so that she could smoke one of her Pall Mall Blacks while she washed the dogs’ bedding—she’d never smoke in the kennel around the dogs. She turned on a hose and dipped the bedding into a barrel filled with soap. I asked her what she’ll miss the most. “The dogs,” she said. “Greatest dogs you will ever meet. I wouldn’t have any other breed.” She turned to me and asked, “Did those dogs look abused to you?”

I said no.

“They love to run. If a dog got out of one of our buildings, they’d come right back to the track. You can’t make a dog run. These dogs have had it in their DNA since ancient Egypt. They’re born to run.”

I never did tell Deb that I voted for the amendment.

Trainer Hazel Copeland takes a drag from her cigarette
Trainer Hazel Copeland takes a drag from her cigarette
 
Photo: Isaac Eger (G/O Media)

The greyhound has the most enthusiastic description of any dog in the American Kennel Club’s Complete Dogbook

Swift as a ray of light, graceful as a swallow, and wise as a Solomon, there is some basis for the prediction that the Greyhound is a breed that will never die…His was the type the ancients knew, and from time immemorial he has been a symbol of the aristocracy. Yet the Greyhound is a dog that needs no fanfare to herald his approach, no panoply to keep him in the public eye. His innate qualities give him admittance to any circles, high or low.

Many fans of the greyhound claim that it is the oldest breed of dog. Like parents, people who love greyhounds have a habit of adorning the dog with superlatives. They’ll tell you that the first evidence of the greyhound can be found in the ancient Egyptian Tomb of Aten, who lived sometime between 2900 and 2751 BC. The evidence is based on hieroglyphs that show “dogs of unmistakable Greyhound type” hunting. They’ll say that the head of the god Anubis is a not a jackal, but a greyhound. And that heart-wrenching passage in the Odyssey where Odysseus returns home to Ithaca in disguise, and is only recognized by his loyal dog, Argus, who wags his tail at the sight of his old master and then immediately dies? That was a greyhound, too. In the 10th century, King Hywel of Wales decreed the killing of a greyhound to be punishable by death. The Spanish introduced the first greyhounds to America during their conquest of the New World. That the dogs were used to hunt down and torture Indians is left out of most histories. Recent DNA sequencing reveals that modern greyhounds are more closely related to herding dogs and that these ancient dogs are actually Saluki—sighthounds that resemble the greyhound’s profile.

The concept of pure breeding dogs is fairly recent. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century, which brought the creation of kennel clubs, stud books, and breed standards, that dog categorization took on any real methodology. The modern racing greyhound appears in 17th-century England with the sport of coursing. Coursing sets two greyhounds after a live hare that has been given a head start. You could bet on either the dogs or the hare. This sport democratized the greyhound as it was an affordable alternative to the more expensive sport of fox and stag hunting, which was done on horseback by British elite.

By the late 19th century, artificial lures that raced along mechanical tracks began to replace live rabbits in England, but this “coursing by proxy” proved unpopular and was abandoned. It wasn’t until 1905 that the sport reappeared in America due to the efforts of a South Dakotan businessman named Owen Patrick Smith. He was tasked with popularizing coursing, but believed the sport’s slaughter of a live rabbit at the end of the race by the dogs was too cruel. In 1910, Smith patented the “inanimate hare conveyer,” a trolley that carried a stuffed rabbit around a track. In 1919, with new financial backing, Smith displayed his invention on the first commercial dog track in Emeryville, California. The venture was popular, but lost money. It wasn’t until Smith brought the sport to Florida that it hit its stride. The first track in Florida was built in 1922 in Humbuggus (today the area is known as Hialeah). Tracks started popping up all over the state—St. Petersburg in 1925, Miami in 1926, Miami Beach and Orlando in 1927, Sarasota in 1929. The success of the sport in Florida likely had something to do with the fact that the state was a nexus for organized crime during prohibition. Dog racing became associated with mobsters, and betting on the dogs was technically illegal throughout the decade. But once Florida politicians noticed that revenue from dog racing could add to the state’s Great Depression-ravaged coffers, parimutuel betting was legalized in Florida in 1931.

In 1944, the Sarasota track burned down, and a car salesman and sheriff’s officer named Jerry Collins bought the place for $5,005 worth of back taxes. Collins was a model of the enterprising entrepreneur of the early 20th century. He had moved to Sarasota in 1919, and then became a sheriff in Ft. Myers, a town south of Sarasota, where he was one the bodyguards for Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. He was a gambler and he’d frequent the tracks in Tampa and St. Petersburg. At one point he owned 12 tracks throughout the country.

Illustration for article titled Dog Racing Died Without A Funeral
Photo: Isaac Eger (G/O Media)

“The only weird part is knowing you’ve done it for 75 years, and after this year you won’t,” he said. “Back in the ‘80s, live racing could bring in a million a day here. For the past few years, we were lucky if we got $200,000.” Collins Jr. is at the track nearly every day, but I only ever saw him at the poker room bar, where he sat in a dark corner and sipped on bottled water.

“Our business changed when the state changed the lottery laws in 1986,” he said. “Before that, we were the only place where you could gamble legally. Once the lottery came in, it took a lot of money out of circulation. We used to get so many people that those 17 acres behind the track were used for additional parking.” The palmettos and thick Florida wild have since taken the acreage back.

To read the full article go here. 

 

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About the author

Isaac Eger

Isaac Eger

Isaac Eger lives and leaves Florida. Writing about sports (basketball, mostly), the environment and the end of the world. To read more from Isaac, you can find him on Medium. 

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