Arkansas’ final greyhound race at West Memphis’ Southland Casino Hotel happened on New Year’s Eve. Now, West Virginia alone offers greyhound racing in the United States. But no one knows for how long.
Only Wheeling Island Casino in Ohio County and Mardi Gras Casino & Resort near Charleston host West Virginia greyhound races.
To operate a state-licensed casino, they must do so by state law. But some think the state legislature convening this year may change that. Those who want the dogs to stay include Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke.
He maintains it’s a humane sport that provides economic benefits to the area he represents. He even inspected a greyhound adoption center and took home a retired racer.
Those who’d like to see greyhound racing end include Carey Theil, executive director of the national nonprofit greyhound protection organization Grey2KUSA. And although his objections stem mainly from concerns for greyhounds’ health and welfare, he’s brought up some financial concerns for the state as well.
Even the owner of the two remaining casino/dog tracks, Delaware North, wouldn’t mind telling the sport to play dead. Citing shrinking revenues, its spokesperson told WV Public Broadcasting (WVPB), “We would support it if legislation passed that would allow us to operate the casinos without operating racing.”
Greyhound racing attendance on a steep decline; could this be the end?
Dog racing peaked nationally in the 1980s, with 50 tracks scattered through 19 states. Since that time, worries over greyhound welfare along with increased gambling availability have had the sport on the run, according to the Associated Press.
Greyhound betting reportedly dropped from $3.5 billion in 1991 to $500 million in 2014. Revenue may have plummeted even more after Florida, long a dog racing mecca, ended the sport in early 2021.
Still, here in West Virginia, a 2007 state law mandates that any state-operated casino offer either dog or horse racing. In 2017, a bill that would unlink the state and dog racing passed the legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Jim Justice.
Disagreements exist over whether the 2023 legislative session will prove the death knell for the sport. Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, doesn’t think so and disparaged Grey2KUSA as a “propaganda machine.”
For his part, Theil wondered if West Virginia wants to be the last state where the sometimes injurious sport happens. He thinks the legislature has enough votes to overturn the 2007 law.
Regarding the financial side of greyhound racing here, Delaware North has reported a significant drop in attendance as well as the aging of those who do come to races. The company has seen a 5-year decline and these decreasing revenues:
- Wheeling: -60%
- Mardi Gras: -40%
Most agree that any current revenue comes from simulcasting. Breeders see none of that revenue, however. And corporate profit percentage is only 3%, Theil told WVPB.
That means profits ultimately go to out-of-state gambling companies.
An industry surrounded by controversy
Of course, greyhounds’ welfare remains the biggest issue for many. The ASPCA has called dog racing “a nasty practice.”
Delaware North said it supports “the highest standard for the dogs’ safety and well-being.” Some in the industry think things have greatly improved in this area. They say the dogs are no longer considered disposable.
And according to Wheeling veterinarian Lori Bohenko, the sport sees “minimal catastrophic injuries.” The veterinarian for Mardi Gras attributed last year’s 600 racing injuries and 10 deaths to staffing challenges related to the pandemic.
Theil, on the other hand, said of the 10 greyhounds who died, “Ten high school football player deaths would be unacceptable.” Harm to animals may not be limited to the dogs themselves, either.
Steve Serras, greyhound breeder and president of the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association, pointed out to WVPB that it’s in his business interest for his dogs to be well cared for. To help with that, the state mandates that about $17 million a year in casino gaming profits go to subsidize kennel and breeding operations.
The West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund helps some of the 1,500 people in the state’s racing industry and safeguards the dogs’ well-tended survival even if they don’t win.
The bill Gov. Justice vetoed in 2017 would have ended the subsidy.
In other states, greyhound racing was stopped because voters wanted it to be or because casinos willingly gave up subsidies that accompanied it. A gradual phaseout that keeps the welfare of racing dogs and workers in mind might reduce opposition in West Virginia.
In preparation for closing the Arkansas track at Southland, which Delaware North also owns, the company worked with kennels for over three years.