RI fights to keep greyhound racing

July 13, 2009 11:06:14 AM PDT
Greyhound tracks are folding across the country, but in cash-strapped Rhode Island - where the unemployment rate is among the nation's worst - lawmakers are betting on the dogs to save jobs.Rhode Island legislators are fighting to expand greyhound racing, an increasingly outdated and unprofitable sport that has been squeezed out by newer forms of gambling. Over the objection of Gov. Don Carcieri, lawmakers have moved to force a bankrupt, state-licensed slot parlor to run 200 days of live racing at its greyhound track even though current law only requires 125.

Carcieri, a Republican, vetoed the legislation, but lawmakers in the Democratic-dominated General Assembly say they expect to override it.

Supporters of the dog racing bill say it's necessary to save 225 jobs - including pari-mutuel clerks, bartenders and security workers - to preserve tax revenue and to retain the 5,000 people who visit the track each week.

They also argue the public shouldn't be penalized for what they say are the bad business decisions of the owners of the gambling parlor, called Twin River.

"I did not want to see more people out of work," said Sen. Frank Ciccone III, the bill's sponsor. "My compassion is with the poor people who are trying to make a living than with the multimillionaires who overinvested and tried to take more money out."

The move bucks a national trend away from greyhound racing. In the last year alone, Massachusetts voters passed a ballot question banning greyhound racing amid allegations the dogs were mistreated; a pro-dog racing group wants to contest that referendum.

New Hampshire's two remaining greyhound tracks won state permission last month to end live racing after waning interest from bettors. The state ditched a requirement that the tracks host 50 days of racing to complement simulcast wagering - a law that a spokesman for one facility, the Lodge at Belmont, likened to forcing a "Cadillac dealer to have a horse-and-buggy division."

About 30 tracks remain nationwide, down from a peak of about 55 in the early 1990s, said Gary Guccione, executive director of the Kansas-based National Greyhound Association.

"There has been a downsizing," he said. "It started when the lotteries really started expanding and when the casinos were getting a foothold in different parts of the country."

UTGR Inc., the owners of Twin River - which opened as a horse racing venue in the 1940s - filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month, unable to repay more than a half-billion dollars in debt taken on during massive renovations.

The Carcieri administration supports an end to live racing, saying live wagering on the sport has declined from $150 million in 1990 to $13 million. Twin River moved to suspend racing earlier this year and sought legislative permission to get rid of the sport as part of a bankruptcy restructuring deal with Carcieri's administration.

"The governor has said all along, 'Get rid of the dogs. It doesn't make financial sense to continue dog racing,"' said Carcieri spokeswoman Amy Kempe.

Instead, lawmakers voted to expand the required number of annual racing days, though the track usually operates about 200 days on its own, said Jennifer Bramley, a spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Greyhound Owners Association.

Though Guccione said tracks are still busy in states like Florida and Arkansas, there's been ongoing upheaval in New England.

In New Hampshire, the Lodge at Belmont and Seabrook Greyhound Park suspended live racing but will continue to simulcast races from tracks around the country, which typically draw a bigger betting pool and a chance for higher payouts.

Wagers on live racing at the Lodge at Belmont accounted for only $180,000 of the $45 million in overall pari-mutuel wagers at the facility last year, said spokesman Rick Newman.

The Massachusetts ban, approved last November, takes effect Jan. 1, 2010, at the state's two tracks. Supporters of the ban had argued that the sport was inhumane and that dogs were routinely injured during races. Now a pro-dog racing group is pressing for a court inquest into the election, saying voters were deliberately misled about the treatment of the dogs.

"By throwing out an industry, you have to move out of state," said John O'Donnell, a Massachusetts greyhound trainer and member of Protection of Working Animals and Handlers, a pro-dog racing group seeking an inquest into last year's election. "So it's not like I can just up and get another job in Massachusetts if I want to stay in my profession."

Back in Rhode Island, Dante Sarro, 82, who spends three afternoons a week at the track and has been betting on dogs for longer than he can remember, says he can't figure out why his hobby is considered unprofitable.

"I can't work anymore. I've got a bum leg. I'm too old. So this is what I enjoy," he said. "For a lot of the old-timers, it's their pastime."


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