It's a lazy Saturday afternoon at the Melbourne Greyhound Park casino on April 15, the last day of racing for the season. The stands are mostly empty, with a smattering of a few dozen people scattered around an area that could seat hundreds. General manager Jim O'Brien says it's the biggest crowd, by far, that they've seen all season.
That's because greyhound racing is an industry in decline. Greyhound racing is banned in most of the United States; there are just 19 remaining active tracks in the country, and of those, 12 are located in Florida, where a pari-mutuel contract exists, linking greyhound racing to gambling. If gambling outlets don't have a greyhound racing permit, they're not allowed to hold gambling activities at their facility.
This won't be changing any time soon. In Florida's 2017 legislative session, a bill that would have decoupled racing from casino gambling failed when legislators were unable to reach a consensus.
O'Brien says his casino loses about $200,000 a year keeping the dogs racing per the pari-mutuel contract with the state. That amount includes what it costs to get the tracks and kennels ready, air conditioning, and keeping the dogs in good shape, he says.
"It's a part of our business," he says. "It loses money, but we're big boys and if that's what the state requirement is, that's what the state requirement is."
The crowds watching greyhound racing have dwindled in recent years. The greater awareness of the mistreatment of some dogs in the industry, a general increase in animal rights activism, and the changing interests of the public have shifted tastes away from the sport.
- Photo by Jeremy Reper
That's also due in no small part to eye-opening revelations on the injuries dogs suffer from a recent state rule that requires greyhound injuries to be made public, not to mention accusations lodged against a Florida dog trainer after five of his greyhounds tested positive for cocaine in April.
O'Brien, though, thinks the difference comes down simply to age.
"We do have people that are regulars, just not enough," he says. "The millennials don't watch live dogs, they weren't brought up in that atmosphere. Most of the people are 60 and up."