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Greyhound breeder: Study criticizing state subsidies doesn’t tell full story

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A greyhound breeder questions a Legislature-commissioned study that concludes the millions of dollars West Virginia pumps into the racing industry should be redirected.

“You can manipulate statistics any way you want to manipulate them,” Steve Sarras said of the findings from the Spectrum Gaming Group on Wednesday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”

In-state wagers dropped 55 percent from 2004 to 2013 at West Virginia’s two greyhound tracks, Wheeling Island Hotel Casino Racetrack and Mardi Gras Casino and Resort, the report said. In Wheeling, greyhound racing drew 929,000 spectators in 1983, a number that is now down to 13,000 or an estimated 50 people per race day.

“We are subsidizing a sport that nobody’s watching,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall, 2).

Now may be the time, Kessler said, to start rolling back West Virginia’s investments in greyhounds, though he noted the state’s larger gambling expansion was originally implemented to prop up dog and horse racing.

“The foundation of the entire casino and gaming industry in our entire state was premised on, No. 1, they would only be at these places that had racing,” Kessler said. “So you’ve got to think about the fact that, when they passed these referendums, etc. for gaming, it was only going to be at these places. They weren’t going to be stand-alone casinos.”

Despite the declines in attendance and wagers, state subsidies for greyhound racing have grown in recent years. State money, which come from video lottery proceeds, now accounts for 95 percent of total greyhound racing purses. In 2013, the state also put $5.5 million into the Greyhound Breeding Development Fund.

Sarras, a member of the West Virginia Kennel Owners’ Association, argued against the use of the word “subsidy.” “It’s not a ‘subsidy.’ What it is is a voluntary tax on gambling,” he said. “There’s a tax on that and that tax money is what people are calling a ‘subsidy.'”

A West Virginia University study found the greyhound industry mad a $31 million impact on the state in 2012, while state subsidies that year totaled $29 million. According to Spectrum, the current structure “does not appear to be in the best interest of West Virginia taxpayers.”

“Is it a good business model? It’s in the black,” Sarras said of those numbers. “Put it this way, if I had a business and I was making a profit, I would be happy with it. How big or how small that profit is, that’s fine. It’s better than operating at a loss, in my opinion.”

The Spectrum report estimated eliminating greyhound racing would affect 618 jobs, with those workers taking other casino jobs—numbers Sarras also disputed. “It’s more like 1,500 or 2,000 (jobs), and how do you tell 1,500 or 2,000 people that they don’t have a job?”

According to company information, Steve Sarras Kennels has been racing greyhounds since the 1980s. He first arrived in West Virginia in 2007 and operates racing kennels at Southland Gaming & Racing, Wheeling Island Casino Racetrack Resort and Bestbet Orange Park.

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