Orlando Sentinel: Tighten leash on greyhound racing in Florida

Published on 1/3/2018 by the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board

When it comes to greyhound racing, Florida is leading a shrinking pack. Forty states have banned dog racing. Nationwide, 18 dog tracks are operating in just five states; Florida has the most with 12, including the Sanford Orlando Kennel Club in Longwood.

Greyhound racing is dying amid competition from other opportunities for gambling and rising, well-founded concern among the public about the health and happiness of racing dogs. More than 400 of those dogs have died in Florida since the state Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering started keeping count in 2013.

The industry, if it hopes to survive, would be wise to embrace proposals to protect greyhounds and clean up dog racing. Yet it keeps pushing back.

After the Seminole County Commission passed an ordinance in August 2016 to require greyhound trainers at Sanford Orlando to publicly report injuries to their dogs, the Florida Greyhound Association filed suit to block it. The ordinance, which took effect in May, also requires the track to license its dogs with the county and submit its kennels to county inspections — requirements that already apply to Seminole’s commercial kennels. A hearing is scheduled on the lawsuit later this month.

The association contends that state law pre-empts any local regulations of greyhound racing. And while state law requires all the Florida tracks to report deaths of their dogs to the state, proposals to force them to publicly report injuries have failed to pass in the Legislature.

But it does nothing to instill trust in the industry’s insistence that its dogs are well-treated when the association marshals its legal firepower — its lead lawyer is former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp — to try to invalidate Seminole’s ordinance. The public can’t help but wonder: What is the industry so anxious to hide?

Last month another legal challenge, brought by two greyhound trainers, led a state administrative law judge to strike down the state’s procedures for drug-testing racing dogs. The two trainers had been cited and suspended for 24 positive cocaine tests among dogs they ran at a track in Orange Park in 2016 and 2017.

State regulators responded within a week of the decision with an emergency rule to resume drug testing, pointing out that testing is essential to prevent cheating and protect dogs from substances that could leave them prone to injury or death. But if regulators don’t follow up with a permanent rule, or legislators don’t agree on one during their upcoming session that starts next week, the state’s drug-testing procedures will be vulnerable to more challenges in the future.

Legislators also will have a shot during this year’s session at another greyhound proposal that bays for action: a bill co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando that would ban the use of anabolic steroids for racing dogs. These drugs are widely used by trainers to allow female dogs to race alongside males, despite harmful health impacts and possible performance-enhancing effects. A steroids ban passed in the House last year but failed in the Senate. If the industry cares about its reputation and viability, it will be leading the charge for passage this year.

After foolishly resisting incremental regulatory measures, the industry now faces an existential threat in a proposal pending before Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission. With the formidable backing of former Senate Presidents Don Gaetz and Tom Lee, the proposal would ban greyhound racing throughout Florida. It will be sent to voters for possible approval later this year if it is endorsed by the commission.

The greyhound racing industry in Florida claims credit for more than 3,000 jobs and $11 million in annual tax revenue. But those economic benefits won’t save the industry if it keeps standing in the way of steps to reform racing.