For a long time, the one-armed bandits inside the Mardi Gras Casino and the four-legged racers outside on the greyhound track were all spinning in the same direction.
The arrival of slots in the 1990s was a jackpot for West Virginia’s fading dog-racing industry. As in many states, lawmakers here allowed new casinos to open only in conjunction with existing dog and horse tracks and steered a cut of their winnings to purses at the track.
“It was kind of a golden age after that,” said Sam Burdette, head of the West Virginia Greyhound Breeders Association.
But now, an explosion of casino gambling is strangling the greyhound industry that it once rescued. The bettors have largely migrated to the faster-paced gambling inside; the dogs are running in front of mostly empty stands, and the marriage between the bing-bing-bing and the bark-bark-bark is heading for divorce. West Virginia may become the latest state to sever the link between casinos and tracks, a trend that could finally spell the end of the sport of queens.
“We’ll be done in a couple of years if nothing changes,” said Harvey Maupin, 50, a longtime West Virginia greyhound trainer who races at both of the state’s dog tracks, in Charleston and Wheeling. At one time, he and his wife, Loretta, operated two kennels with a dozen employees. Now they are down to two workers and are about to let one go.
In much of the country, these are the dog days of greyhound racing. Once a mainstay of American gambling, dog tracks seem unlikely to outlast growing animal welfare concerns and the relentless expansion of other ways to gamble.
“People want instant gratification these days,” lamented Burdette, a retired civil engineer who raced dogs as a sideline before becoming head of the greyhound lobby. “It’ll take you half an hour to lose $50 at a racetrack. You can do it in five minutes sitting in front of a slot machine.”
Nationally, betting on greyhound racing — both trackside and at remote simulcast parlors — has plummeted from a peak of $3.5 billion in 1991 to $665 million in 2012. At one time, more than 50 tracks operated in 15 states. Now, 21 tracks remain in seven states as interest has waned and legislatures have begun to reexamine the requirement that casinos operate — and subsidize — greyhound racing as a condition of offering slots, poker and blackjack.
Massachusetts, after a campaign highlighting animal welfare concerns, voted to ban racing altogether in 2010. Iowa became the latest state to cut the connection between casino revenue and dog tracks in May when Gov. Terry Branstad (R) signed a law that will shutter one of the state’s two tracks and eliminate the yearly $14 million subsidy to the greyhound industry.
Similar “decoupling” initiatives are expected in other racing states this year, including West Virginia, where the politics are complicated by the fact that the governor’s 80-year-old mother is one of the state’s best-known greyhound owners.
West Virginia casinos are still required by law to operate the tracks for 220 days of racing a year. But the tight-knit racing community accuses its old ally of giving up on marketing the sport, and sometimes worse.
“I honestly think they’re working against us,” said Rod Monroe, who raises about 100 dogs on a farm near Wheeling. “I think they want to make it hard for people to come out to see the dogs.”
At one point, patrons at Wheeling Island Casino were diverted through a parking garage to reach the dog track, Monroe said, although the facility’s new general manager has restored the old entrance. At Mardi Gras, race fans take a side elevator and navigate across two floors of gaming to access the outside gallery, which itself is filled with slot machines and table games.
“You need a GPS to even find us,” said Charleston-area trainer Tim Byrnes.
In many states, casinos that want to get out from under the racing subsidies have formed a surprising alliance with animal welfare groups, who say the sport is cruel. In the worst cases, advocates say trainers have beaten dogs, fed them contaminated meat and trained them using live rabbits as bait.
But even at good kennels, they say, dogs are often injured in the races and endure training routines in which they are housed in pens for most of the day.
“None of them are malicious acts of cruelty, but in our view these standard practices together constitute an industry that is cruel and inhumane,” said Carey Theil, head of GREY2K, an advocacy group that pushes anti-racing legislation around the country.
Greyhound breeders dispute that critique, pointing out that many urban dogs spend their days in crates. They were outraged in March when Danny Adkins, a senior executive of the company that owns both the Charleston casino and another in Hollywood, Fla., published an op-ed with Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle that called for allowing casinos to get out of racing on animal welfare grounds.
Critics say the casinos’ real concerns are sinking revenue, as gambling expands in one state after another, and the costs of operating the dog tracks. “He didn’t think greyhound racing was inhumane when he was making millions from it,” Byrnes said of Adkins.
Adkins, in an interview, said he does not consider the racing itself to be cruel. But as the money dries up, he said, it’s fair to ask whether kennels can still afford to provide the dogs with proper care. In the op-ed, he cited the case of a kennel that falsified vaccination records to cut expenses.
“When we were making millions of dollars, they were making millions of dollars,” Adkins said of the kennels. “Now I wonder how they’re paying for it.”
Rod Clark, who breeds about 130 dogs a year at a greyhound farm outside Charleston, offers a tour of his own facility.
On a recent afternoon, dozens of dogs milled about in 28 separate chain-link runs. Six puppies yipped in pens in an air-conditioned room. In another, Clark opened a door and 20 dogs, most wearing plastic muzzles, bounded in and lined up to be let into pens lined with paper and carpet.
“There have been some roughnecks in the greyhound business for sure,” Clark said, after pointing out the stacks of premium dog food, the refrigerator full of vaccine and the list of greyhound adoption groups he works with. “But now everybody in the world is looking at your dogs.”
West Virginia racing opponents say they plan to introduce a decoupling bill in the coming legislative session, and both sides wonder what role will be played by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D). His family owns Tomblin Kennel, a major player on both state tracks. His mother, Freda Tomblin, is one of the state’s best-known greyhound breeders, with a table permanently reserved for her in the restaurant overlooking the Charleston track.
Tomblin declined to comment for this article through a spokesman, who also said Freda Tomblin was ill and unavailable. Racing foes assume the governor will work to derail the legislation. But those in the industry point out that Tomblin has supported cutting the greyhound subsidy in the past.
“We don’t expect the governor to be our savior by any means,” Burdette said.
And there may not be one. In Florida, where 12 tracks operate mostly in conjunction with poker halls, Adkins, the casino owner, sees no future at all for dog racing. He will close the Hollywood track if the law is changed to allow it, he said.
But in West Virginia, he thinks at least one track might survive if the year-long racing schedule were reduced to a few months in the summer. Survive, at least for a while.
“I think it’s going to come to an end ultimately,” Adkins said. “It just seems there is not much interest left.”
On a recent Wednesday night at the Mardi Gras track, Kenneth Feustel perched on a stool, alone with a pack of Pall Malls, a racing program and a betting system working well enough that, if you don’t mind, he’d rather not talk about.
But once the eight panting greyhounds had sprinted by in their forever-fruitless chase of the mechanical bunny, he was happy to chat about every other aspect of a sport that continues to entrance the 70-year-old widower, even as most of the gambling public has turned away.
“Not many are as devoted as I am anymore,” says Feustel, a retired tree-service owner who remembers when the grandstands were twice the size and packed with eager bettors.
“There’s still a crowd here, I guess,” said Feustel, one of just a dozen or so spectators in the small covered gallery, “but they’re all inside playing slot machines.”
To view a related video, go to http://wapo.st/greyhounds.