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THOMPSON: Inhumane sport of dog racing comes to an end in Florida

June 07, 2021 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


A bit of my past recently passed...something I expect and accept as I age. I was a Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force in 1971...and from any perspective that’s a really distant time...a half-century ago.

I’m not the same person now as then...and it’s a very different world, too. Our thoughts and feelings can - and often do - change a good bit over such long periods of time...a reflection of how society evolves on issues, as well as how we evolve as individuals.

As an aide to the four-star general who headed U.S. Strike Command - a blended force of five thousand Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine personnel at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL - my duties spanned everything from the mundane to the sublime.

Whatever the general needed or wanted - taking notes of a phone call with a U.S. Senator in the morning...picking up his dry cleaning that afternoon - was all in a day’s work. The job had a few perks, but perhaps the best was wearing a silver aiguillette - a single braided rope worn on the left shoulder epaulet - that signalled to all that my boss outranked almost everyone.

Every week, I would accompany the general and his wife on some official or purely social function, driving them to and from a dinner or a theatre performance. A few times a year, we would drive from the Air Base north on Dale Mabry Highway, west on Gandy Boulevard across Old Tampa Bay 20 minutes to Derby Lane...Florida’s and the world’s oldest and most popular track for Greyhound racing.

The general and his wife sat - often with friends - in the VIP section in air conditioned comfort watching the dogs run...betting enough to make it interesting. The daily races - matinees and evenings - typically drew about 2,500 people.

Derby Lane opened in 1925, a one-owner operation - the Winning family (seriously) - for 75 years. The first six years gambling was illegal in the U.S., though like speakeasies selling hooch...gamblers found ways to place bets.

I actually enjoyed watching the Greyhounds run...for 30-seconds they were the fastest dogs I’d ever seen...reaching an occasional 45 M.P.H. clip chasing a mechanical rabbit, whose name was - pardon the hokeyness - Hare-son Hare.

I never joined the general and his wife, but stood in uniform nearby, awaiting any signal to get the black Lincoln Town Car with red flags and four gold stars affixed to the front fenders. I would place a few two dollar bets on races for myself, often parroting the general’s bets.

Derby Lane had always drawn celebrities and sports heroes...Clark Gable, Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mantle and Frank Sinatra, among others. People usually dressed for the occasion...men in coat and tie and women wearing stylish Summer dresses. Waiters served Manhattans and Martinis in the VIP room...it was dog racing’s Churchill Downs.

There were some unsavoury characters...mobsters like Santo Trafficante, Jr., Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Meyer Lansky all watched the dogs run at Derby Lane. Those who lost often complained that the mafioso fixed the races - overfeeding some dogs or putting rubber bands on the paws of others to mark them temporarily lame - there’s no evidence to support those claims.

I probably didn’t think much about the dogs back then...they seemed happy to run...and like horse racing, it was socially acceptable. They even called it the “Sport of Queens” after Queen Elizabeth I sanctioned Greyhound Racing in England in the 16th century.

Like most people, if I knew then what I know now about how these dogs lived and died, I likely wouldn’t have wagered a single dollar. I assumed - like so many others - the dogs were valuable assets and were bound to be treated well.

Just two years ago, Florida put the future of Greyhound racing in the hands of voters...a Constitutional Amendment that would end gambling on dogs by 2021. Industry officials were confident Floridians would reject government interference and support the multi-million-dollar economic impact of dog racing on the state.

But voters - by more than two to one - ended Greyhound racing in Florida...and it appears anywhere else. Eleven of the industry’s 17 tracks were in Florida. Four tracks in Arkansas and Iowa close in 2022...leaving just two in West Virginia.

While some owners and trainers treated their dogs well, many dogs suffered. As late as 2017, trainers in Florida - including Derby Lane - were found guilty of doping 27 dogs...giving them cocaine...a stimulant to enhance performance.

Grey2K, a non-profit organization, has worked for two decades to pass stronger greyhound protection laws and end dog racing. The group also promotes the rescue and adoption of the dogs worldwide. Greyhounds typically race for just four years...age and a waning interest in racing takes over.

Grey2K and dog lovers worldwide have long contended even standard Greyhound racing industry practices amounted to mistreatment. In the few remaining tracks, dogs race under conditions where serious injuries - from broken legs to fractured skulls and spines - are routine.

The biggest shame is that only about 30 percent of Greyhounds bred for racing ever raced...thousands became pets through adoption but tens of thousands...were destroyed.

Taking the general and his wife to watch the Greyhounds run at Derby Lane in 1971 is just a memory. I didn’t know enough to even question the concept of dog racing 50 years ago. But, I’m glad some folks did...and they acted on what they found. They put an end to something that hurt more dogs than it helped...something that existed just to entertain people and make some of them lots of money.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.


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