The legal status and difficult future of greyhound racing
Published 14 December 2018 By: Jack Anderson
Next year will be the centenary of the opening of the world’s first commercial greyhound racing track, built in Emeryville, California1. At the time, the town, wedged between Berkeley and Oakland, was a haven for gambling dens, speakeasies and brothels and thus it was thought a greyhound circuit would fit snugly.
Emeryville, where the building of its first dog track predated its first church by 40 years, would later be called the “rottenest city on the Pacific” by US Chief Justice Earl Warren. The track would however only host races for a few months in 1919 as a federal crackdown on illicit gambling and bootlegging ruined the night at the dogs for the e’villes, as the locals liked to call themselves.
But greyhound racing would soon thrive in other parts of the US, notably in Florida, which, post-Prohibition, was one of the first states to legalise gambling on the greyhounds in 1931.
Today, greyhound racing has been illegal for decades in its original state of California and last month Florida banned betting on the sport2. This means that as we approach its centenary as an industry, the sport is effectively dead in the US. And the prognosis internationally is equally grim.
First to the US and Florida: in Florida, elections are famously fraught and tight. Last month, and in an election as close and as controversial as George W Bush’s Supreme Court victory over Al Gore in 2000, the Republican candidate was declared Governor on a recount with a mere 0.4% majority.
Things were not so close in one of the many constitutional amendments tagged onto the gubernatorial ballot in Florida. Amendment 13 sought to put into Florida’s constitution an express ban on greyhound racing by penalising betting on the sport.
Florida has just over half of the remaining greyhound tracks left in the US (11 out of mere 20). It is by far the biggest gambling market for the sport in the US and its revenues have subsidised the sport nationally. Without Florida, the sport will wither and die in the mere 5 states in which it now survives: Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Texas and West Virginia.
Greyhound racing’s terminal illness as an industry in the US is a pattern repeated globally.
This means that at present commercial greyhound racing is now confined to six countries: the US, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and, of course, Ireland.
As a result, modern greyhound racing will enter its second centenary in only four countries.
Equally, there are four reasons as to why greyhound racing is now in its death throes in the US and four things to look out for in those countries, such as Ireland, who seek to keep it alive: complacency by those who run the sport; its declining economic relevancy; internal integrity threats; and animal welfare concerns.
In the US, the Republican party was seen as being more sympathetic to the sport - the five states in the US where the sport remains legal all voted for Trump at the last Presidential election.
What greyhound racing supporters in Florida did not realise in the run up to last month’s vote is that in a state where the Republican majority is wafer thin, old political bonds were equally as brittle.
The sport, although once a significant contributor to the economy in Florida – both as an employer in rural areas and in terms of gambling tax revenue; was in severe decline.
The sport’s administration in the US appeared not only complacent as to the changing political and economic landscape but also socially; failing to attract younger, urban audiences to its tracks and losing existing punters to other sports.
What’s worse the sport seemed to wallow it is insularity and while no one in the US expected greyhound racing ever to return to the mainstream, it did appear content to remain off-off-Broadway.
Republican politicians in Florida did the maths – tax dollars and votes – and decided that the sport was simply not worth saving.
In addition, the sport in the US undermined itself from within by way of dog-doping and race-fixing scandals7. Resulting disciplinary charges against those within the sport were sometimes vigorously contested in court leaving the sport’s inner workings exposed to public hearings and weakened by massive legal bills.
Media campaigns by animal welfare organisations, one of the most powerful lobbyist groups in the US due to donations and bequests, also focused on allegedly high fatality rates at Florida tracks. Between 2013 and this year, over 460 greyhounds are reported to have died8 at Florida races and this allied to allegations of poor breeding practices in the sport, inhumane kennel care and the disposal of (still young) racing dogs on retirement, saw polls go from a 44% minority in favour of banning the sport, at the beginning of the Florida campaign, to a 69% final majority.
Here in Australia, the sport faced extinction in the most populous state (New South Wales) in 2016 when an ABC Four Corners programme exposed live baiting practices by some within the sport.
A Bill to ban it was passed in the NSW Parliament9 but a promise by the sport to carry out a significant animal welfare audit saved it. Effectively, the sport remains on licence in Australia as it does in New Zealand where last year a report by former NZ High Court Judge Rodney Hansen QC was critical of the high rates of dogs being euthanised and injured in the industry10.
In Australia a three-pronged approach has underpinned its recent revival. First, greyhound racing in Australia now has some of the most sophisticated anti-doping and race rigging programmes of any animal sport globally. The trend in the leading states – Queensland, NSW and Victoria – is to combine integrity-related investigatory and even tribunal resources of the three leading racing sports in the country i.e., greyhound, horse and harness racing.
Second, the various state regulatory bodies also subsidise extensive retired greyhound welfare, fostering and adoption schemes and have integrated the principles of animal welfare as a key component of the sport’s integrity remit. In NSW, for example, as from 1 July 2018, the newly established statutory regulator for the sport is formally called the Greyhound Welfare and Integrity Commission.
Third and commercially, the sport has also been revived and in October, NSW hosted the world’s richest greyhound race, worth AUS$1 million to the winner.
Retuning to Ireland, although greyhound racing has deep roots in many parts of the country (I am from one of them) and although the sport is, unusually for Ireland, based on statute, are the lessons from elsewhere being heeded by those who run the sport today?
Ironically, the biggest threat to the sport might come from the very reason it proved commercially attractive one hundred years ago – gambling.
The greyhound racing industry, even more so than horse racing, is an adjunct of the gambling industry – epitomized by the recent decision to broadcast early morning racing from Irish tracks for live TV betting audiences only.
But, and as the quiet desperation of the above move hints, the sport has lost modern punters’ prime time attention.
In the US, tracks are now being converted into casinos; kennels are being replaced with poker tables; banks of supporters watching live dog-racing and placing bets on-course are being substituted by banks of plasma TVs showing live feeds of major league sport for punters to bet online.
It’s a far change from 1931 when Florida first legalised greyhound racing.
In that year, the great Mick the Miller, the Irish-bred dog credited with popularising the sport in the UK, retired in front of 40,000 at the old Wembley stadium.
Greyhound racing at Wembley is no more and the odds of the sport existing in Britain to celebrate Mick the Miller in 2031 are lengthening.
As for Ireland, if you are a supporter of the sport, would you be confident, even now, that the sport would survive a referendum on its future?
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- Tags: Animal Welfare | Australia | Gambling | Governance | Greyhound racing | Mexico | New Zealand | Regulation | United Kingdom (UK) | United States of America (USA)
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Jack Anderson is Professor and Director of Sports Law Studies at the University of Melbourne. The sports law program at Melbourne was one of the first to be established globally in the mid-1980 and continues to expand at the Melbourne Law School, which itself is ranked in the top 10 law schools globally.
Jack has published widely in the area including monographs such as The Legality of Boxing (Routledge 2007) and Modern Sports Law (Hart 2010) and edited collections such as Landmark Cases in Sports Law (Asser 2013) and EU Sports Law (Edward Elgar 2018 with R Parrish and B Garcia). He was Editor-in-Chief of the International Sports Law Journal based at the International Sports Law Centre at the Asser Institute from 2013 to 2016.
Appointed as an arbitrator to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2016, he became a member of the inaugural International Amateur Athletics Federation’s Disciplinary Tribunal and the International Hockey Federation’s Integrity Unit in 2017. In 2018, he was the sole CAS arbitrator at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia. In 2019, he was appointed to the International Tennis Federation’s Ethics Commission. He is currently chair of the Advisory Group establishing a National Sports Tribunal for Australia