April 25, 2014
ST. PETERSBURG — They packed together, shoulder to shoulder, in the shade of the entrance to Derby Lane’s greyhound track. It was minutes from opening and an anxious energy had settled on the mostly gray-haired crowd of about 30. They leaned on walkers and benches, and, through reading glasses, studied programs detailing the matinee races to come.
Pacing nearby, a shaggy-haired man checked his watch as time ticked past 11:30 a.m. and the track had yet to open. Frustrated, he slapped a program against his leg. Another regular, clutching a frayed clipboard that held his race notes, reminisced with a security guard about how long the lines stretched decades ago.
Then, a signal. The turnstiles cranked like pinwheels as people rushed in with the exuberance, if not the pace, of teens at a pop concert. Steadied by his cane, a grizzly of a man with a scruffy Fu Manchu hobbled — rather, hopped — up the brick ramp. Others shuffled by, headed to their favorite, or luckiest, seats.
Inside, the patrons spread thin across a stadium that once held 12,000 people. Racing since 1925, Derby bills itself as the world’s oldest continuously operating greyhound track. To those who care, it is an iconic site, the Lambeau Field of its sport. But those who care grow fewer every year.
Since 2007, the St. Petersburg Kennel Club has reported dog track losses of more than $20 million, including $3.2 million last year alone. In fact, not a single Florida parimutuel posted an operating profit from dog racing in its most recent state financial filing.
But because of the sport tracks are allowed to also run card rooms, and in some cases slot machines, about half of the state’s 20 dog racing permit holders made up for deficits with other gambling revenue. Derby’s card room, for example, made $4.8 million last year, eclipsing dog track losses.
The numbers call into question a persistent assertion from Derby’s operators: that even if lawmakers allowed them to run card rooms without dog racing, they would still race….
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