The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

Concerns about the dogs’ welfare and declining betting revenue have led tracks across the country to close in recent decades.

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Eight greyhounds thunder around the sandy oval at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, Fla., the oldest continuously operating dog track in the U.S. Florida voters chose to effectively ban dog racing in the state by the end of 2020, which will wipe out nearly the entire American greyhound racing industry.

It’s 8:30 on a Saturday night in August. A gibbous moon hangs low in the Florida sky, its pale glow no competition for the red neon proclaiming, “GREYHOUND RACING” and “DERBY LANE.” About 300 people are scattered around grandstands that once held thousands, murmuring among themselves while the loudspeaker plays big band and rockabilly tunes.

They fall silent when it’s time for Frederick Davis to lead the parade of dogs.

“TNT Sherlock,” says the announcer, calling the names of the eight sleek animals as Davis makes them pause in front of the stands. Each dog wears a big number attached to a snugly fitted vest known as a “blanket.” “Tailspin,” the announcer calls, “…Charlotte York….”

Next, Davis, 41, and the eight handlers he supervises will put the dogs in the starter’s box. The mechanical rabbit named “Hare-son Hare” will zoom past, squeaking and shooting blue sparks. The doors will fly open, and the greyhounds will burst onto the track, their bodies a blur, their paws tossing sand in the air as they gallop around the oval for 30 seconds. They hit speeds of up to 45 miles per hour, making them second only to the cheetah, the fastest land animal on Earth.

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In its glory days of the 1950s, Derby Lane attracted thousands of avid racing fans, such as Joe DiMaggio, who left Marilyn Monroe sitting in the car while he ran inside to place his bets. Now only a few hundred show up for the races, a sign of how its fan base has dwindled.

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Storm clouds gather over Derby Lane’s old-fashioned entrance. The same family has been operating this Florida track since it opened in January 1925, drawing such big-name fans as Babe Ruth and Sophie Tucker. Gambling was illegal then, but bettors found a way around the law until it was legalized in 1931.

Famed sports columnist Ring Lardner called Derby Lane “the Churchill Downs of greyhound racing.” When the dogs run, you can still get a hint of its glory days. This was once a place that seemed full of glamour and excitement. The stands would be packed with men and women in suits and hats. Babe Ruth and Sophie Tucker were frequent visitors. Joe DiMaggio once left Marilyn Monroe in an idling car chatting with the valet while he ran inside to place his bets.

Derby Lane is the oldest continuously operating greyhound racetrack in the United States, but it’s headed on its last stretch. Two years ago, Florida had more greyhound tracks than any other state—11 out of 17 nationwide. Now it’s down to three, with about 1,700 dogs still racing.

In 2018, Florida’s voters had the chance to approve a constitutional amendment—Amendment 13—that would ban betting on greyhounds as of December 31, 2020. The proposal, which effectively bans greyhound racing, was brought by critics of the sport who contend dog racing is cruel and inhumane.

The racing industry bet on beating the amendment, arguing that its supporters were exaggerating stories of dogs’ mistreatment. The industry spent just a fraction of what supporters did on the campaign, believing the sport was popular enough that the majority of Floridians wouldn’t vote to ban it.

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Greyhounds stretch their legs at Farmer Racing. Though generally gentle and non-aggressive, greyhounds often wear muzzles around each other because they can get competitive, having been trained to race after the same lure. They also have very thin skin and little body fat, so even playful nips can cause serious injuries.

They misjudged. Nearly 70 percent of voters said yes to the shutdown. Now the tracks must close by New Year’s. Derby Lane’s final race will be December 27.

Davis, a tall, slender man with dreadlocks and a quick smile, will be one of 400 Derby Lane employees out of work. He isn’t sure what he’ll do next. He’s been at the track for 14 years and considers this his ideal job.

“I love dogs,” he says, “and I love being outside.”

He might try to become a security guard, he says. That way he could work with dogs again—guard dogs, though, not greyhounds.

He’s not the only Derby Lane employee wondering about the future.

Decline of dog racing

in the U.S.

Since the peak of dog racing in 1985,

state laws have led to the closure of race-

tracks across the country. After Florida’s

tracks close at the end of 2020, and Iowa

and Arkansas’ by the end of 2022, only

two active commercial racetracks will

remain­—both in West Virginia.

States with active

commercial racetracks

Active track

IOWA

W. VA.

UNITED STATES

UNITED STATES

ARK.

TEXAS

FLORIDA

Derby

Lane

The last active dog

racetrack in Texas

closed in June 2020.

CHRISTINA SHINTANI, NG STAFF

SOURCE: GREY2K USA WORLDWIDE

Decline of dog racing in the U.S.

Since the peak of dog racing in 1985,

state laws have led to the closure of

racetracks across the country. After

Florida’s tracks close at the end of

2020, and Iowa and Arkansas’ by the

end of 2022, only two active commer-

cial racetracks will remain­—both in

West Virginia.

IOWA

W. VA.

UNITED STATES

UNITED STATES

ARK.

States with active

commercial racetracks

TEXAS

Active track

FLORIDA

The last active dog

racetrack in Texas

closed in June 2020.

Derby

Lane

CHRISTINA SHINTANI, NG STAFF.

SOURCE: GREY2K USA WORLDWIDE

“It’s a shame to have to shut down after 95 years,” says Derby Lane CEO Richard Winning, 64, whose office overlooks the track. His family has owned Derby Lane since it opened in 1925. He predicts that once the Florida tracks close, the ones in other states will follow.

“In 20 years, will anyone even remember what greyhound racing was?” he asks.

This is the one thing on which he agrees with Carey Theil, whose Massachusetts-based greyhound advocacy group, Grey2K USA, spearheaded the drive for Amendment 13: Once Florida’s tracks are gone, so too is the whole industry.

“Florida really was the industry,” Theil says.

Proverbs, royalty, and bribes

Winning is a born storyteller, with a droll manner, a gray beard, and a trio of cigars tucked in the pocket of his teal fishing shirt. He started out at the track 45 years ago collecting 50-cent pieces from the turnstiles, and since then he has worked almost every other job. He remembers when the regulars included rakish gamblers called “The Flicker” and “Champagne Tony,” the track restaurant served a 37-ounce prime rib, and a live band—not recordings—played between races.

Winning says greyhounds are the only breed of dog mentioned in the Bible, which is sort of true. The King James version of Proverbs 30:31 includes them in a list of things which are “comely in going.” (Scholars say the original Hebrew refers to Afghans or Salukis).

The King James translators knew about greyhounds because, back in the early 1600s, England was enthralled by a sport called “coursing,” in which two greyhounds raced to catch a scampering rabbit. Queen Elizabeth I was a fan—hence greyhound racing’s nickname, “the Sport of Queens.”

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Dog collars hang above a tub filled with raw beef and rice as kennel owner and trainer John Farmer prepares to feed some 60 dogs. In total, they eat about 90 pounds of beef mixed with commercial dry dog food, water, electrolytes, rice or macaroni, multivitamins, and supplements to combat anemia.

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Farmer rubs down his dog Rick Swift Creek with a muscle-soothing liniment. He also checks his dogs for ticks, looks at their nails, and massages their muscles. The dogs spend their days either waiting for the 30 seconds they’re racing or recovering afterward.

In the 18th century, an eccentric English nobleman obsessed with coursing created the modern English greyhound through selective breeding, according to Cynthia A. Branigan’s The Reign of the Greyhound. With lean, aerodynamic bodies, long legs, and shock-absorbing foot pads, greyhounds were built for speed. They have a proportionally bigger heart than other breeds, and more red blood cells and hemoglobin, which carry more oxygen to their limbs. Their sprinting gait (a “double suspension rotary gallop”) and high proportion of fast-twitch muscles power short, quick bursts of speed.

But dog racing as we know it today originated with an American inventor named Owen P. Smith who ironically wanted to be kind to animals. To him, the dying rabbits sounded like a child screaming.

The son of a Memphis undertaker, Smith was a sometime barber who loved to tinker. His brilliant idea: replace the live rabbit with a mechanical one. In 1910, he secured a patent for “the Inanimate Hare Conveyor.”

“Nobody in the history of any sport brought about a change comparable to that worked by the inventor of the device, and yet no inventor in sports history is so little known,” Sports Illustrated commented in 1973.

Smith did more than invent a humane lure. He and two partners designed the first modern greyhound track, which opened in 1919 outside Oakland, California. It failed, as did several others they opened. The tracks flopped because they didn’t allow betting. Gambling, while popular, was illegal.

The first commercially successful track was one Smith and his partners opened in 1921 in a swampy South Florida area known as “Humbuggus,” later to become the city of Hialeah. It was so close to the Everglades that the track owners hired a snake-catcher to intercept stray reptiles. Five thousand people turned out for the first race, watching a dog named Old Rosebud take the $60 purse, according to Going to the Dogs: Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism, and American Popular Culture, by Gwyneth Anne Thayer.

The key to its success: Electric lights. Running races at night meant working people could attend. With Florida’s 1920s land boom in full roar, thousands of new residents sought evening entertainment. The track ran until 1926, when a hurricane demolished it. New owners converted it to horse racing.

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Flamenco Dancer, also called Bunny, was one of Farmer’s champion racing dogs. Between 2017 and her retirement in 2020, Bunny earned more than $83,000 in purses, of which Farmer got a percentage. Most racing dogs retire at about five years old, when they start to slow with age.

In 1925, on the other side of the state, Derby Lane opened under a cloud. The partners who built it ran out of money and couldn’t pay what they owed for the real estate or the lumber. That’s how T.L Weaver, Winning’s great-grandfather, took possession of the venue. He grew beans in the infield, says track historian Louise Weaver, and between regular races had monkeys in uniform ride the dogs as if they were jockeys, their outfits sewn onto the greyhounds’ blankets so they couldn’t jump off.

Although betting was illegal, tracks in the 1920s “did something sneaky,” Winning said. “They sold shares in the dogs.” The winners would get their money back plus a “dividend.” Losers would fail to recoup their “investment.” Other tracks skipped the subterfuge and ran “on the fix”—they bribed local lawmen.

In 1931, with the Depression bankrupting local governments, Florida legislators floated a bill to legalize wagering on dog and horse races and tax it. Governor Doyle Carlton, a Bible-thumping Baptist, opposed the bill. Thirty years later he contended, “interested parties were buying their way through the legislature” and claimed gamblers offered him $100,000 to sign the bill. He vetoed it instead. State senators overrode his veto, making Florida the first state to legalize betting on horse and dog races.

Once that law passed, racing took off. New greyhound tracks popped up across the state, from Tampa (1932) to Orlando and Jacksonville (1935) to Pensacola (1947) to Key West (1953).

Greyhound racing became part of Florida’s sun-and-fun image. Mickey Mantle filmed a cigarette commercial at Derby Lane. Boxing champs and movie stars hung out at the tracks. The 1959 movie A Hole in the Head shows Frank Sinatra and Keenan Wynn betting on races at Miami’s Flagler Kennel Club.

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Susan Butchko, who has been fostering and adopting greyhounds since 1999, pets her newest adopted dog, a retired racing greyhound named Remy. Often described as “45-mile-per-hour couch potatoes,” greyhounds make good pets, owners say.

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At Dippel’s Florida home, retired racing greyhound Roxanne walks through the shallow end of the swimming pool.

‘Dachau for dogs’

Florida tends to be a sunny place full of shady people. The money involved in dog racing attracted plenty of them. Winning recalls seeing Tampa mob boss Santo Trafficante, Jr., laying down bets at Derby Lane. Some mobsters were more than customers. Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky had an interest in South Florida dog tracks, according to Scott Deitche, author of seven books on the Mafia.

A state racing commission was supposed to keep out unsavory elements. But in 1950, Senator Estes Kefauver’s Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime reported that mobsters controlled the commission and made illegal campaign contributions to politicians, including then Governor Fuller Warren.

The mob’s involvement sparked frequent rumors about fixed races where dogs were overfed before the race to slow them down, or their toes cinched up with rubber bands to alter their ability to run, or they were drugged to make them faster or slower.

Dog-doping has continued to be a problem, particularly with the use of cocaine, which can grant a short-term burst of speed. In 2017, state racing officials revoked a trainer’s license because five of his greyhounds running at Derby Lane had tested positive for cocaine. Months later a trainer at a North Florida track was also suspended after a dozen of his dogs tested positive. In the three years since then, state officials say, 10 more trainers have had dogs test positive for cocaine.

The use of performance-enhancing drugs is just one of greyhound racing opponents’ concerns about the industry. Grey2K, which has spent nearly 20 years compiling reports on the welfare of racing greyhounds, says that even standard industry practices amount to mistreatment. When the dogs aren’t racing, for example, they’re often confined to small cages in warehouses. Dogs are forced to race under conditions that can cause serious injuries, too, they say. Grey2K’s website has collected documented cases of greyhounds that have broken their legs and backs, fractured their skulls and spines, and even gotten electrocuted by the lure.

The Florida Greyhound Association, an industry group, did not respond to requests for comment.

The larger concern is what happens to them when they’re not racing.

What makes greyhounds the fastest dog breed also makes them susceptible to injuries on

the racetrack.

At two points during the stride all feet are free from the ground. This allows short bursts at up to 45 miles per hour but offers poor endurance.

Gathered aerial phase

Extended aerial phase

The low body fat content of about 2 percent and a thin single-layer coat reduces the ability to self-regulate temperature.

Long, strong legs with a large proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers allow sprinting but lead to fatigue fast.

A deep chest enables lung power and holds a very large heart that can go from 100 to over 300 beats in one minute, promoting muscle oxygenation.

DIANA MARQUES, NG STAFF

SOURCE: MICHAEL GRANATOSKY,

NEW YORK INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

What makes greyhounds the fastest dog breed also makes them susceptible to injuries on the racetrack.

At two points during the stride all feet are free from the ground. This allows short bursts at up to 45 miles per hour but offers poor endurance.

The low body fat content of about 2 percent and a thin single-layer coat reduces the ability to self-regulate temperature.

Gathered aerial phase

Extended aerial phase

A deep chest enables lung power and holds a very large heart that can go from 100 to over 300 beats in one minute, promoting muscle oxygenation.

Long, strong legs with a large proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers allow sprinting but lead to fatigue fast.

DIANA MARQUES, NG STAFF

SOURCE: MICHAEL GRANATOSKY, NEW YORK INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

What makes greyhounds the fastest dog breed also makes them susceptible to injuries on the racetrack.

The low body fat content of about 2 percent and a thin single-layer coat reduces the ability to self-regulate temperature.

At two points during the stride all feet are free from the ground. This allows short bursts at up to 45 miles per hour but offers poor endurance.

Gathered aerial phase

Extended aerial phase

A deep chest enables lung power and holds a very large heart that can go from 100 to over 300 beats in one minute, promoting muscle oxygenation.

Long, strong legs with a large proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers allow sprinting but lead to fatigue fast.

DIANA MARQUES, NG STAFF

SOURCE: MICHAEL GRANATOSKY, NEW YORK INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

In 1952, the Greyhound Racing Record said only 30 percent of greyhounds bred for racing would become competitors, leaving open the fate of the other 70 percent. Even those that do race only do so until they’re about five years old. Grey2K has compiled all the news stories over the years about greyhounds being destroyed or sold to laboratories for experimentation.

Among their evidence of cruelty: a 2010 case from a track in the Florida Panhandle town of Ebro, where a trainer left 37 dogs to starve to death after the racing season ended. He ended up pleading guilty to more than 30 counts of animal cruelty and being sentenced to five years in prison.

Possibly the worst case happened in 2002. A security guard for the Pensacola track was arrested after authorities found an Alabama junkyard where, over 10 years, he had killed and buried some 3,000 greyhounds. He said he’d been paid $10 each for shooting them when they got too old. A prosecutor called the junkyard “Dachau for dogs.” The guard died before he could be brought to trial on animal cruelty charges.

Graying greyhound fans

The scandals cut down greyhound racing’s popularity as fans were turned off by the repeated reports of mistreatment. Meanwhile, competing gambling operations—first the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes’ casinos, then the Florida Lottery—began siphoning off the profits, Winning said.

The loyal fans tended to skew older. In 2001, when Steven Soderbergh filmed a scene at Derby Lane of George Clooney and Brad Pitt recruiting someone for their Oceans 11 robbery, their target was Carl Reiner, then 79. He fit in perfectly with the graying greyhound crowd.

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Photos of the finish line help Derby Lane judges determine which dogs finished in which place.

“Young people don’t like to have to handicap” the dogs’ chances, Winning grumbles, referring to the way ardent bettors carefully examine each dog and its record. “They just want to stare at their phones” and not put the time in.

Now the typical race fan is Jim Wickert, 77, a retired golf course owner who shows up at Derby Lane every Wednesday and Saturday sporting his jaunty tan Orvis fedora. A Derby Lane regular since 2003, he enjoys handicapping the dogs’ chances.

“I like trying to figure them out,” he said. “I don’t bet big, but it’s still exciting when you do figure things out and they run the way you think they should.” He said he once won $10,000 on a race.

He’s not sure where he’ll go once the track closes. Nothing else seems as exciting.

When Winning looks back at Florida’s racing heyday, in the 1980s, he remembers Keefer, the dog that won the Distance Classic in 1986. Some 12,779 people turned out that day to watch this superstar run—the largest crowd in track history. Now a Saturday crowd at Derby Lane might number 700 tops, Winning says.

The decline of U.S. dog racing is in part attributed to a drop in gambling. In turn, that has led to a reduction in greyhound breeding.

Year-to-year drop in wagers reflects the decreasing number of tracks open. As gamblers lose their favorite tracks, they tend not to migrate to others.

Total amount wagered on greyhound racing

$700

million

500

300

100

2010

2018

2014

Dogs registered to race with the National Greyhound Association

14,000

dogs

10,000

6,000

2,000

2010

2018

2014

Revenue from wagering at live races peaked in the late ‘80s and early ’90s, when there were twice as many events than there are today.

Amount wagered at the Iowa Greyhound Park*

Live races

Simulcast

(bettors wager remotely on races taking place elsewhere)

$70

million

50

30

10

1985

1995

2005

2019

Live races at the Iowa Greyhound Park

300

events

200

100

1985

1995

2005

2019

*The Iowa Greyhound Park was known as the Dubuque Greyhound Park before 2015.

DIANA MARQUES, NG STAFF

SOURCES: GREY2K USA WORLDWIDE;

IOWA RACING AND GAMING COMMISSION

The decline of U.S. dog racing is in part attributed to a drop in gambling. In turn, that has led to a reduction in greyhound breeding.

Year-to-year drop in wagers reflects the decreasing number of tracks open. As gamblers lose their favorite tracks, they tend not to migrate to others.

Total amount wagered on greyhound racing

Dogs registered to race with the National Greyhound Association

$700

million

14,000

dogs

500

10,000

300

6,000

100

2,000

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

Revenue from wagering at live races peaked in the late ‘80s and early ’90s, when there were twice as many events than there are today.

Amount wagered at the Iowa Greyhound Park*

Live races at the

Iowa Greyhound Park

Live

races

Simulcast

(bettors wager remotely on races taking place elsewhere)

300

events

$70

million

50

200

Simulcast was introduced in

Iowa in 1989, but the park only

adopted the remote form of

gambling in 1993, after a drop

in live race profits.

30

100

10

1985

1995

2005

2019

1985

1995

2005

2019

*The Iowa Greyhound Park was known as the Dubuque Greyhound Park before 2015.

DIANA MARQUES, NG STAFF

SOURCES: GREY2K USA WORLDWIDE; IOWA RACING AND GAMING COMMISSION

Over the past 10 years, the money brought in by live greyhound racing has dropped from $117 million to less than $40 million a year, state figures show. At Derby Lane alone, it dropped from about $12 million to $3.2 million in 2019.

The industry tried to adapt, winning legislative approval in 1997 to add poker rooms and simulcasting, which allows bettors at one venue to wager on races at another. Now the poker rooms are packed with younger customers, and the simulcasting has its fans too. Those will go on after dog racing ends, Winning says. But it wasn’t enough to save Florida’s racetracks.

‘45-mile-per-hour couch potatoes’

For a decade, Grey2K tried to persuade Florida legislators to ban greyhound racing, to no avail, Theil says.

Finally, they appealed to the state’s Constitutional Revision Commission, which meets every decade to update the constitution. A Tampa area state senator named Tom Lee—Winning calls him “our idiot legislator”—proposed Amendment 13. The amendment technically bans betting on live dog races, but by extension, it essentially bans the races themselves. Without betting, there is no profit, and the tracks can’t afford to stay open.

Grey2K and its allies, such as the Humane Society of the United States, spent $3 million convincing voters to pass it, Theil says. They spent almost all of it running graphic TV ads showing injured racing dogs.

The Florida Greyhound Association fought back with ads that asserted that Grey2K was exaggerating its stories of injuries and death, as well as warning that the amendment was full of “trickeration” that would somehow lead to bans on hunting and fishing. Its yard signs implied that banning racing would also ban greyhounds.

But the association couldn’t get support beyond its declining fan base. Thayer, author of Going to the Dogs, says the track owners, kennel owners, and dog trainers had been too fractured among their individual interests for too long to present a unified front.

Nearly 70 percent of the voters said yes to the amendment. Winning and others in the industry insisted the voters were confused somehow. A lawsuit to overturn the vote went nowhere.

The impending shutdown makes the future of more than 8,000 dogs associated with the Florida tracks uncertain. Greyhound adoption agencies are trying to find them homes, although not all the agencies are allowed to help. Those that supported the ban are not welcomed by track owners. Only adoption agencies that opposed the amendment can get dogs.

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Track veterinarian Donald Beck and trainer Kelsie Gubbels care for BD Wells, who has a minor ligament injury. When he's healed, he’ll go to GST Sun State Adoption to find his forever family.

One of those is Tampa resident Sharon Dippel’s GST Sunstate Greyhound Adoption. She and her husband, Brian, have adopted eight former racing greyhounds themselves. They go through a couple of 44-pound bags of dog food every 10 days or so, she says.

So far, Dippel says, plenty of people have lined up to adopt the soon-to-be-unemployed dogs. She says it helps that the tracks are not all shutting down at once. Some closed shortly after the 2018 vote, while others closed in early 2020 because of the coronavirus.

Who’s adopting them? “Everyone you can think of,” says Linda Lyman of Bay Area Greyhound Adoption in Tampa, another of the organizations working to find homes for Derby Lane’s 776 dogs. “People who had greyhounds in the past or even just heard about them.”

They’re not high-strung animals, says longtime Derby Lane veterinarian Donald Beck. They’re affectionate. In his years of working at Derby Lane, he’s never been bitten—but he has been scratched a few times by excited dogs jumping on him.

As pets, greyhounds still like to run when they get outdoors, even without a mechanical device to chase, Dippel says. But when they get back indoors? “They’re a 45-mile-per-hour couch potato.”

Plenty of people got into the racing business because of their affection for greyhounds. Trainer and kennel owner John Farmer, a Klamath Tribe member from Oregon, fell in love with the breed when he was 11 and his mother let him watch races at Multnomah Greyhound Park. He’s now 55, with so many mementoes of his winning dogs that he carries them in an overflowing Tupperware container.

Once Derby Lane shuts down, he figures he’ll have to relocate to one of the few remaining states that still have greyhound racing: West Virginia, Iowa, or Arkansas—though Iowa and Arkansas’s tracks are expected to close by the end 2022. (Texas’s last track closed in June for financial reasons.)

Grey2K is working to convince those states to join Florida in outlawing the industry, just as it’s going after the other countries where it remains legal: Australia, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam.

Farmer remains hopeful that he can use his Native American heritage as a way to save racing in Florida. He’s got a plan to convince either the Seminole or the Miccosukee tribes to acquire a track that would operate in conjunction with one of their casinos and thus be exempt from state or federal regulation. That would, he said, “build a tradition.” So far, though, the tribes have expressed no interest.

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Gubbels, the youngest trainer at Derby Lane, visits the Davis Island Dog Beach in Tampa with her partner Kenan Culesker, daughter Emma, and their retired racing greyhound Flying Amity. They’re part of a Facebook group called Beach Bound Hounds, which tries to convene retired greyhounds and their owners once a week at the dog beach.

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Retired greyhounds splash in the water at the Davis Islands Dog Park during a meetup of the Beach Bound Hounds Facebook group.