The greyhound race has followed the same pattern for almost a century. With a metallic screech the lure sets off, and eight dogs burst onto the track in chase. A half-minute later, the explosion of speed leaves a trail of sand, cigarette butts and torn betting slips in its wake, to be repeated across a hot afternoon.
But soon, it may be extinct.
Florida, which hosts a dozen of the nation’s 17 surviving tracks, is set to vote in November whether to ban greyhound racing. Those in favor of a ban see racing as animal cruelty akin to cockfighting, contending that dogs are caged for most of the day and risk life-threatening injuries for the sake of gambling.
To the men and women who line the grandstand daily — many of them white, and blue collar — it is one more plot by elites from the coasts to curb their way of life.
Groups including the Humane Society of the United States and celebrities such as Doris Day, a longtime animal rights activist, have raised $2.5 million to pass the ban. Greyhound racing supporters have raised a miserly $24,000 to defend it.
“We’re going to get squashed,” said Norm Rader, 62, a greyhound trainer. “It’s a David and Goliath fight. They’re going to overpower us with TV commercials. We can’t dispute the lies they’re telling about us.”
They are a target, Rader insists, because horse racing is too moneyed to take down.
“There’s too much money there, so they’re coming after us. I don’t know what I’m going to do or how I’ll survive,” he said.
The proposal has spawned not only emotional reactions but also a legal battle. A controversial state judge ordered the measure to be removed from the ballot because its language was unclear, saying it amounted to “outright trickeration”; ban supporters appealed the decision, prompting an automatic stay that put it back before voters. A hearing in the state’s Supreme Court has now been confirmed, but both sides anticipate it will be on the ballot.
“It’s nice to get a win, we haven’t had one for a while now, but I think we’ll still see it on the ballot,” said Mitch Cohen, manager of the Sanford Orlando Kennel Club, a dog-racing track in Longwood, about 15 miles north of Orlando.
The track is located in a battleground congressional district: Florida’s 7th, which flipped Republican to Democrat in the 2016 election despite a campaign stop by Donald Trump. But neither political party has rushed to defend it.
“Politicians are ignoring us,” said Ben Paris, Longwood’s Republican mayor. “Our local school is called Greyhounds. The track is a gathering place for residents. It provides jobs, it’s in our DNA.”
None of the district’s GOP candidates responded when asked by The Washington Post for their views on the measure. Nor did the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Stephanie Murphy.
A ban — which requires at least 60 percent of the vote — would be all but fatal for dog racing in the United States, racing supporters say. Greyhound racing already is outlawed in 40 states because of animal welfare concerns; total betting has slumped from $3.5 billion in 1991 to $500 million today. Customers have migrated to poker rooms, online gaming and simulcasting, in which they watch live dog and horse races taking place elsewhere.
Simulcasting, in particular, has hollowed out the sport: Many grandstands are practically vacant on race days, because spectators sit in the tracks’ clubhouses and bet on broadcast races, instead.
Florida is by far the biggest dog racing state left. Racing has survived here in part because of a state law that says tracks must continue racing dogs to host more lucrative casinos. Yet some track owners would prefer to focus on card rooms and phase out racing altogether, arguing that it is unprofitable and bad for their brands.
Last year state gambling regulators granted Magic City Casino in Miami a license to replace dog racing with the niche sport jai alai.
The campaign on the November initiative has prompted each side to accuse the other of falsifying information.
State records reveal that 483 greyhounds have died on the track or in kennel properties since 2013, with most deaths directly relating to racing. Causes included broken necks, heart attacks or electrocution from the high-voltage lures that lead the dogs around the tracks.
Anti-racing advocates insist that surviving dogs also are mistreated. Carey Theil of the anti-racing group Grey2K USA said the animals are kept in cages almost constantly, fed rancid meat and mistreated by trainers. “The industry refuses to acknowledge any of these problems,” he said.
The industry remains dogged by accusations of doping, including claims the greyhounds are injected with testosterone and cocaine. On Aug. 1, the state filed an official complaint against a Palm Beach trainer after a random urine test revealed one of his dogs had tested positive for cocaine. Theil of Grey2K said doping led to heart attacks and, in the case of testosterone and female dogs, serious hormonal imbalances and genital deformities.
Trainers insist those accusations are false. “You can’t be unhealthy and run around a track in half a minute,” said A.J. Grant, a trainer in Orlando who cares for 120 greyhounds with the help of four assistants. “My dogs are athletes. They get . . . meat that could go into a burger patty. I give them Big Macs as treats.”
“They’re treated like kings,” he said.
Grant said he and his partner, Kathy Lacasse, who operates a rival kennel, slept on the concrete floor of his kennel during Hurricane Irma to comfort the dogs.
“We chose to be with them and reassure them even when the roof was falling off above our heads,” he said. “They’re great animals, they’re born to race and they love it. Why would we abuse or drug animals that we love?”
Yet Sonia Stratemann, who runs a dog sanctuary, said greyhounds are treated well only as long as they make money. “The moment these dogs don’t deliver profit because they’re old or injured, the trainers dump them at my farm,” she said. “I’ll never hear from them again. It’s always hush-hush.”
Stratemann, 46, pointed to the example of Bart, a 1-year-old dog that snapped his leg during a race last year and was set to be put down before she stepped in and paid $2,600 for three rounds of surgery. She said the trainer has not asked about the dog’s well-being since the incident.
Rader, the trainer, said he had given the dog to a veterinarian and had no idea he had been passed to Stratemann. Almost all of his dogs are adopted once they retire from racing, he said.
“Sonia’s a little radical for me,” he said. “It’s a shame they make these bogus claims because I don’t know how we’re going to survive when they win their campaign.”
At the track, gamblers say they expect the initiative to win.
Roger Littleton, 70, a retired nuclear radiation inspector, said he came to the track for “the mental stimulation and the entertainment.”
“It’s a world you can immerse yourself in,” he said. “The most I ever won is $700, but it’s not about the money. I’ll play cards or do sports betting if it’s banned, but I would prefer it to stay open.”
Tony Huddleston, 62, who resurfaces tennis and basketball courts, has gone to the Sanford Orlando track every week since 1985. “I come here with $20 and talk to people. How can you save dogs from themselves when they’re born to do this? I don’t get it. I don’t know what I’d do if it went. I don’t know where I’d go.”
Jeff Sonken, 50, a painter, said proponents of the ban “don’t come from here. They don’t know the reality.”
“All their money comes from Hollywood and New York,” he said. “They’re sending their money down here, but they don’t know anything about Florida.”
Grant, the trainer, sounded pessimistic about their odds.
“We’d be lucky to survive,” he said. “In a few years a lot of our tracks will be closed, but we’ll fight to the end.”