Dog racing in West Virginia is fading fast down the stretch

The West Virginia Kennel Owners Association issued a news release recently which sought to put the best possible face on the greyhound racing industry.  “Annual reports from the West Virginia Racing Commission for 2016 and 2017 tell a compelling story about the popularity of greyhound racing—and one that runs contrary to the unverified, but widely publicized, narrative of animal rights extremists opposed to the sport.”

Kennel Owners Association President Steve Sarras said figures from the state Racing Commission show an increase in the amount wagered from $107 million in 2016 to $112 million in 2017.  I double checked those figures with the Racing Commission, and they are correct.  However, some context and additional information is important.

First, only about 13 percent of the wagering is done at the state’s two greyhound tracks (Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras) on races at those tracks.  The largest portion, 73 percent is the “export handle,” wagering done at out-of-state tracks or casinos on races at West Virginia tracks and the rest (another 13 percent) is the “simulcast handle,” bets made at West Virginia tracks on races at other tracks.

According to the state Racing Commission, the state’s share from all that wagering in 2017 was just under $1 million. That money helps pay for the operation of the Racing Commission; it does not go into the state’s General Revenue Fund.  The tracks and breeders receive a share of the handle.

Greyhound racing in West Virginia is not self-sufficient. The industry receives a portion of the proceeds from casino gambling.  Last fiscal year, greyhound purses received $12.1 million, while the breeders fund received $3.6 million. I’ve argued before that is tantamount to a subsidy to keep the dogs running, but Sarras has maintained, and not without merit, that one of the motivations behind approval of casinos was to help sustain greyhound and horse racing.

Dog racing is a dying enterprise. The number of tracks has been in steep decline, from more than 50 in the 1980s to 19 in 2017 to just a handful today.  The death knell may have come last month when Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 13 (69 percent to 31 percent) banning commercial dog racing.

Florida’s 11 dog tracks will close by 2020. That will leave just six active tracks in the country, including the two in West Virginia.  Perhaps some of the breeders from Florida will relocate to West Virginia to try to stay in business, and that could provide respite for the industry, but for how long?

Animal rights organizations have long pushed for the elimination of dog racing, but that’s an argument for another day.  What is clear, however, is that economically dog racing is an overall loser for West Virginia. This rapidly fading activity is only sustainable because it is propped up by a share of the profits from other forms of gaming that customers prefer.

Rather than perpetuating the industry, West Virginia should read the obvious handwriting on the wall.  Phase out greyhound racing, giving owners and trainers time to find another line of work, while also creating adoption programs for the dogs.



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