Federal Legislation Could End Greyhound Racing
CHARLESTON — Opponents of greyhound racing are taking their fight national with a new bill in Congress to phase out the sport. If passed, it would end racing at two of West Virginia’s casinos.
U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., late last month introduced House Resolution 7826. The bill, also called the “Greyhound Protection Act,” would amend the Wire Act to prohibit gambling on commercial greyhound races. The bill would also prohibit gambling on open-field coursing where greyhounds and sighthounds are judged on their ability to chase down hares.
“Greyhound racing is cruel and must end,” Cardenas said in a statement. “My bill allows for a sensible wind-down of an already-declining industry that will ultimately outlaw greyhound racing. As a longtime animal welfare advocate, I am committed to always speaking up for the voiceless.”
Cardenas, a known animal welfare advocate, is a member of the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus and has introduced several bills over the years to limit the kinds of animals used in research, to increase penalties for animal cruelty in interstate commerce, to crack down on exotic animal poaching and upholding the Endangered Species Act.
The bill to end greyhound racing has received praise among animal rights activists.
“Greyhound racing will soon end in the United States, and this bill allows for a managed phase-out of the activity to enable planning to provide homes for the dogs and certainty for the owners, workers, and breeders in the industry,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action. “Greyhound racing is dying, and it’s best to manage the shutdown of the industry to allow for a soft landing for the people and the animals involved.”
Is greyhound racing still viable?
There are four greyhound racing tracks remaining in the United States. Two of those are in West Virginia: Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and Mardi Gras Casino and Resort near Charleston. Both are owned by hospitality company Delaware North, which provided no comment for this story.
GREY2K, an organization whose mission is to protect greyhounds and end racing, noted that greyhound racing is quickly losing the race for relevance in the 21st century.
Gulf Greyhound Park, the last greyhound track in Texas, shut down last month. The Birmingham Race Course, Alabama’s last remaining track, closed in April. Southland Casino Racing in Arkansas, a Delaware North-owned property, announced last October that greyhound racing would be phased out by 2022.
In 2018, voters in Florida passed an amendment to the Florida Constitution to end greyhound racing by the end of 2019, shutting down 11 racetracks in the state. The amendment was notable because Florida was the first state to legalize greyhound racing in 1931.
Greyhound racing was so synonymous with Florida that the TV show “Miami Vice” included a shot of greyhounds racing in its iconic show introduction.
“Momentum is building for a national phase out of greyhound racing,” said Carey Theil, executive director of GREY2K. “Since the end of the (West Virginia) legislative session, dog racing has ended in two more states, and West Virginia will soon be the last state to sanction the activity. According to state records, more than 9,000 greyhound injuries have been reported at Mardi Gras and Wheeling since 2008, including 3,254 dogs that suffered broken bones and 420 greyhounds that died. Greyhounds also endure lives of confinement, and some dogs are trained by being given small animals to tear apart.”
Earlier this year, GREY2K attempted to push through a bill during the 2020 West Virginia legislative session that would have eliminated a fund stream for greyhound racing in the hopes of hastening the industry’s demise.
Senate Bill 285 would have eliminated the West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund by eliminating the transfer of wagers on table games and video lottery machines to the fund. Instead, the bill would have transferred that funding to the Excess Lottery Revenue Fund for distribution by the Legislature.
The bill also would have used the remaining money in the Greyhound Breeding Development Fund to retrain workers in the greyhound industry; promote adoption of greyhounds used at the two racetracks; and provide a one-time, $500 tax credit for West Virginians who adopted greyhounds. According to the fiscal note for the bill, the state would have gained $17.4 million in revenue if the breeding fund was eliminated.
Outgoing Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, led the charge for pushing the bill after a similar measure was vetoed in 2017 by Gov. Jim Justice in a ceremony at West Virginia Independence Hall. Instead of passing the Legislature again, the bill died in the state Senate on Feb. 19 in a 11-23 vote. All of the Northern Panhandle senators, along with three Republicans, voted no on the bill.
One Republican who voted no on the bill, Sen. John Pitsenbarger, R-Nicholas, lost the primary election on June 9. Pitsenbarger, who was appointed to replace former Sen. Greg Boso, was defeated by Robert Karnes, a former senator from Upshur County and lead sponsor of the 2017 bill to eliminate the Greyhound Breeding Development Fund. GREY2K spent more than $8,000 on flyers attacking Pitsenbarger for his opposition to SB 285.
A state or federal issue?
Sources on the Hill point out that Cardenas’ bill only has one co-sponsor at this point and isn’t likely to make it onto the House floor for a vote. U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said the future of greyhound racing should be left up to the West Virginia Legislature and not the federal government.
“The state should hold the authority to decide if greyhound racing should continue,” McKinley said. “This really isn’t a federal issue. In recent years there has been a vigorous debate in the West Virginia Legislature about the future of greyhound racing. Given the potential impact on West Virginia jobs and our local economy, that is the appropriate venue for this discussion.”
Voters in Ohio and Kanawha counties approved table games at Mardi Gras and Wheeling Island in 2007, but only as long as the casinos had racing. But the number of in-person wagers at Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras and tax revenue has steadily gone down over a five-year period.
According to the West Virginia Racing Commission, Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras Casino saw a 13 percent drop in live in-person wagers on races between 2014 and 2018. In contrast, the total handle, the money generated for greyhound racing, has increased over the same five-year time span. Between 2014 and 2018, the total handle produced by the two greyhound casinos increased by 19 percent, from $105.8 million in 2014 to $126.3 million in 2018.
Most of the increase was from the export handle, the number of wagers by out-of-state betters on greyhound races in West Virginia. The export handle made up 78 percent of the total handle for Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras in 2018. This number has increased as the number of greyhound race tracks across the country has decreased, causing bettors in other states to wager on West Virginia’s dogs.
According to the 2014 report by West Virginia University, the greyhound racing industry in West Virginia employs more than 1,700 people and contributes more than $31 million to the economies of Ohio and Kanawha counties and $413,000 in state and local taxes.