DAYTONA BEACH — Daytona Beach Racing and Card Club’s retired president Dan Francati was not surprised that Amendment 13 passed with ease during the midterm election, banning greyhound racing in Florida in two years.
“This is the death blow to the industry,” the 69-year-old Francati said. “Greyhound racing has been on the decline. It didn’t shock me. The sport has contracted over the years.”
Amendment 13 was a straightforward ballot measure that produced a crushing result for the diminishing dog-racing industry. The amendment passed by a margin of 69-31 percent.
Greyhound racing in Daytona and at facilities scattered around the state are now on the clock. The ban takes effect on Jan. 1, 2021.
This city has hosted greyhound racing for 70 years.
Carey Theil, executive director of Grey2K USA, one of the groups pushing for a nationwide ban, called the margin “astounding” and said it was one of the largest ever nationally for any animal rights measure. Amendment 13 even achieved majorities in 10 of the 11 counties where racing is held — in five of those, support exceeded 70 percent.
In Volusia County 133,679 voted for the amendment, 85,855 against, or 61-39 percent.
“It’s a powerful endorsement of our humane values and a repudiation of an industry that is cruel and inhumane” Theil said.
The National Greyhound Association countered that the amendment comes at a higher price than most realize.
“Florida voters have been misled into supporting a measure that not only will cost thousands of jobs in the state,” the statement said, “but one that opens the door for future campaigns to force the radical animal rights agenda on the people of Florida through the constitutional reform process.”
The day after voters cast their ballots to ban dog racing in Florida, about 100 railbirds were at Daytona Beach Racing and Card Club’s 15-race matinee.
For some, it was the first of many goodbyes to an area sport synonymous with “old Florida.”
Jeff Larson, 56, took time off to sit in the patio area overlooking the finish line of the dirt oval off of Williamson Boulevard.
“That’s sad to me and makes me mad,” said the Daytona Beach resident. “This is bad. What is next? Ban horse racing?”
The next step
Fred Guzman, the current president and general manager of the Daytona Beach Racing and Card Club, said don’t expect any sudden changes at the facility.
“It will be business as usual,” Guzman said. “We will continue to run greyhound racing as long as we can.”
Guzman said the facility will have two years to reinvent itself. The card room and simulcast betting area — horse and dog racing betting from tracks across the country — will remain as the mainstay business.
“We need to figure this out,” Guzman said. “But I am confident that we will evolve and become something else, but our core business is still there.”
The facility, formerly the Daytona Beach Kennel Club, has been an active member of the business community for decades.
Nancy Keefer, president and CEO of the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the business appears to be prepared to deal with the change.
“They are really smart business people,” she said. “Over the years they have been diversifying the type of amenities they have there. They are a tourism attraction. They attract a lot of people to the area.”
When International Speedway Corp. built the facility in exchange for the property next to Daytona International Speedway 10 years ago, parent company Delaware North designed the structure as a multi-use facility.
“Do you see a grandstand? No,” Francati said. “The track opened in 2008 and it was designed with no grandstand because we knew then that eventually we would be out of the greyhound business.
“It gives them the ability to re-adapt that property. If you have a grandstand, there is not much you can do. I don’t want to talk for them, but they have a one-level building; a space you can redevelop into entertainment for today, if they wanted to do it.”
For some tracks, losing live racing might actually increase profits. Under current Florida law, greyhound tracks must offer live racing to operate poker rooms and accept wagers on simulcast horse racing from tracks across the country.
Amendment 13 allows them to keep those side businesses without live racing, even if they drop it immediately.
Betting on greyhound racing is on the decline in Florida. State records show that the amount wagered on greyhound racing in Florida decreased from $1.5 billion in 1992 (adjusted for inflation) to just over $200 million in 2017.
Jim Gartland, executive director of the National Greyhound Association, said hundreds of greyhound breeders and their employees nationally will be hurt by the Florida decision and accused the amendment’s backers of “lying” and giving “misleading facts and figures” when they said dogs are abused.
State records show that, on average, two racing dogs a week die of injury or illness.
“It makes no sense that people who make their livelihoods from dogs would abuse them,” Gartland said, pointing out that trainers make their living by producing winners and that abused dogs are generally slower.
Trainers are also among those who will have to find new employment opportunities over the next two years.
Based on the current business model, Guzman said some 150 people will lose their jobs when the ban takes effect, either directly as dog track employees, or indirectly as kennel owners, dog trainers and others who support the sport.
“I fear for the jobs lost, mostly,” said Palm Coast’s Lou Savatini, who was at the track Wednesday. “I’ve known some of these people for 15 years.”
Dog racing was far from a thriving business before the amendment passed. Florida has 11 of the 17 active greyhound tracks in the country, and was one of only five states where greyhound racing is still legal.
That means most kennels can’t simply start over in another state.
“I feel a tremendous amount of disappointment for our employees and the families connected to greyhound racing,” Guzman said.
According to the National Greyhound Association, an estimated 13,000 families will lose their source of income when Florida greyhound racing goes extinct.
“This does feel like losing someone close to you,” Guzman said. “It’s the customers and employees, it’s truly very sad for them.”
Larson put it more succinctly: “It totally bums me out.”
There are an estimated 8,000 greyhounds racing in Florida, and while some will make their way to tracks in other states, the others will need new homes.
Two tracks remain in West Virginia and one each in Alabama, Arkansas and Iowa. Texas has three tracks that rotate an annual meet.
“Who is going to adopt all the dogs?” Francati said. “Who is going to pay for that?”
Francati said the tracks in Tampa, Palm Beach, Jacksonville and here will likely stay open until the ban takes effect.
“All the smaller ones are going to close,” he said. “The rest of them will probably go out of business pretty quickly.”
Guzman expects an outpouring of support for these dogs, which as a breed are characterized as gentle house pets.
Daytona’s dog track has worked with greyhound adoption agencies for decades and supplies adoption information at its greeting area.
“I am confident the greyhound community will do the right thing and take care of the greyhounds,” Guzman said.
The National Greyhound Association said it will be diligent in protecting the animals as they are retired from the sport.
“We will begin the sad process of working with the kennels, greyhound owners, and all of our adoption partners, to ensure that all the greyhounds dislocated by the passage of Amendment 13 are properly accounted for and cared for,” the association said in a statement.
Demise of ‘old Florida’
Some of the longtime greyhound racing fans said this is another chunk of “old Florida” disappearing from the map.
Greyhound racing in Florida started in the 1920s. Daytona Beach’s track opened in 1948.
Dog racing will go the way of other Florida attractions of yesteryear, such as Silver Springs (glass-bottom boat rides), Cypress Gardens (professional water skiing) and Marineland (forerunner of Sea World).
“I’m sad to see it go,” said Debbie Conant. “We don’t come very often. One of the reasons we came to the track was we were feeling (melancholy) about dog racing.
“I just told my mother ‘I need to go take a picture because this won’t be here anymore.’ It’s just like everything else in Florida.”
Pete Kriz grew up in neighboring Seminole County and has watched Central Florida transform into an international tourist mecca.
“I liked ‘old Florida,’” she said. “I don’t care for the new (attractions) and all that stuff that goes on now. When I was growing up it was dog racing, we went to the beach, Bok Tower and all of those things.”
Larson said when friends and family come to visit from out of town he always takes them to the dog track for a night out.
“To me there is nothing like live dog racing,” he said. “I would never come out for a simulcast. (Dog racing) is a nice night out for all our visitors coming down from the north. I guess that won’t happen anymore.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.