LONGWOOD, Fla. â€” The greyhound race has followed the same pattern for almost a century. With a metallic screech the lure sets off, and eight dogs burst onto the track in chase. A half-minute later, the explosion of speed leaves a trail of sand, cigarette butts and torn betting slips in its wake, to be repeated across a hot afternoon.
But soon, it may be extinct.
Florida, which hosts a dozen of the nationâ€™s 17 surviving tracks, is set to vote in November whether to ban greyhound racing. Those in favor of a ban see racing as animal cruelty akin to cockfighting, contending that dogs are caged for most of the day and risk life-threatening injuries for the sake of gambling.
To the men and women who line the grandstand daily â€” many of them white and blue-collar â€” it is one more plot by elites from the coasts to curb their way of life.
Greyhound trainer Kathy Lacasse looks over a racing program alongside A.J. Grant during greyhound races at the Sanford Orlando Kennel Club in Longwood, Fla., last month. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)
Groups including PETA and celebrities such as Doris Day, a longtime animal rights activist, have raised $2.5Â million to pass the ban. Greyhound racing supporters have raised a miserly $24,000 to defend it.
â€śWeâ€™re going to get squashed,â€ť said Norm Rader, 62, a greyhound trainer. â€śItâ€™s a David and Goliath fight. Theyâ€™re going to overpower us with TV commercials. We canâ€™t dispute the lies theyâ€™re telling about us.â€ť
They are a target, Rader insists, because horse racing is too moneyed to take down.
â€śThereâ€™s too much money there, so theyâ€™re coming after us. I donâ€™t know what Iâ€™m going to do or how Iâ€™ll survive,â€ť he said.
The proposal has spawned not only emotional reactions but also a legal battle. Earlier this month, a controversial state judge ordered the measure to be removed from the ballot because its language was unclear, saying it amounted to â€śoutright trickerationâ€ť; ban supporters then appealed the decision, prompting an automatic stay that put it back before voters. A hearing in the stateâ€™s Supreme Court has now been confirmed, but both sides anticipate it will be on the ballot.
â€śItâ€™s nice to get a win, we havenâ€™t had one for a while now, but I think weâ€™ll still see it on the ballot,â€ť said Mitch Cohen, general manager of the Sanford Orlando Kennel Club, a dog-racing track in Longwood, about 15 miles north of Orlando.
The track is located in a battleground congressional district: Floridaâ€™s 7th, which flipped Republican to Democrat in the 2016 election despite a campaign stop by Donald Trump. But neither political party has rushed to defend it.
Trainers check in their muzzled greyhounds before racing at the Sanford Orlando track. Florida, which hosts a dozen of the nationâ€™s 17 surviving tracks, is set to vote in November whether to ban greyhound racing. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)
During a race, greyhounds chase a mechanical lure that makes a squeaky noise as it circles the track. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)
Greyhound muzzles hang inside Kathy Lacasseâ€™s kennel in Longwood. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)
â€śPoliticians are ignoring us,â€ť said Ben Paris, Longwoodâ€™s Republican mayor. â€śOur local school is called Greyhounds. The track is a gathering place for residents. It provides jobs; itâ€™s in our DNA.â€ť
None of the districtâ€™s GOP candidates responded when asked by The Washington Post for their views on the measure. Nor did the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Stephanie Murphy.
A ban â€” which requires at least 60Â percent of the vote â€” would be all but fatal for dog racing in the United States, racing supporters say. Greyhound racing already is outlawed in 40 states because of animal welfare concerns; total betting has slumped from $3.5Â billion in 1991 to $500Â million today. Customers have migrated to poker rooms, online gaming and simulcasting, in which they watch live dog and horse races taking place elsewhere.
Simulcasting, in particular, has hollowed out the sport: Many grandstands are practically vacant on race days, because spectators sit in the tracksâ€™ clubhouses and bet on broadcast races, instead.
Florida is by far the biggest dog racing state left. Racing has survived here in part because of a state law that says tracks must continue racing dogs to host more lucrative casinos. Yet some track owners would prefer to focus on card rooms and phase out racing altogether, arguing that it is unprofitable and bad for their brands.
Last year, state gambling regulators granted Magic City Casino in Miami a license to replace dog racing with the niche sport jai alai.
The campaign on the November initiative has prompted each side to accuse the other of falsifying information.
State records reveal that 483 greyhounds have died on the track or in kennel properties since 2013, with most deaths directly relating to racing. Causes included broken necks, heart attacks or electrocution from the high-voltage lures that lead the dogs around the tracks.
Greyhounds rest in the shade at A.J. Grant’s kennel in Longwood. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)
Anti-racing advocates insist that surviving dogs also are mistreated. Carey Theil, executive director of the anti-racing group Grey2K USA said the animals are kept in cages almost constantly, fed rancid meat and mistreated by trainers. â€śThe industry refuses to acknowledge any of these problems,â€ť he said.
The industry remains dogged by accusations of doping, including claims that the greyhounds are injected with testosterone and cocaine. On Aug. 1, the state filed an official complaint against a Palm Beach trainer after a random urine test revealed one of his dogs had tested positive for cocaine. Theil of Grey2K said doping led to heart attacks and, in the case of testosterone and female dogs, serious hormonal imbalances and genital deformities.
Trainers insist those accusations are false. â€śYou canâ€™t be unhealthy and run around a track in half a minute,â€ť said A.J. Grant, a trainer in Orlando who cares for 120 greyhounds with the help of four assistants. â€śMy dogs are athletes. They get .â€‰.â€‰. meat that could go into a burger patty. I give them Big Macs as treats.â€ť
â€śTheyâ€™re treated like kings,â€ť he said.
Grant said he and his partner, Kathy Lacasse, who operates a rival kennel, slept on the concrete floor of his kennel during Hurricane Irma to comfort the dogs.
â€śWe chose to be with them and reassure them, even when the roof was falling off above our heads,â€ť he said. â€śTheyâ€™re great animals, theyâ€™re born to race and they love it. Why would we abuse or drug animals that we love?â€ť
Greyhound racing trainers Kathy Lacasse, left, and A.J. Grant work at Lacasse’s kennel. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)
Trainer Art Marcoux prepares meals for the greyhounds at A.J. Grant’s kennel. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)
One of Kathy Lacasse’s greyhounds is led back to a truck kennel after a morning workout at the Sanford Orlando dog track. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)
Yet Sonia Stratemann, who runs a dog sanctuary, said greyhounds are treated well only as long as they make money. â€śThe moment these dogs donâ€™t deliver profit because theyâ€™re old or injured, the trainers dump them at my farm,â€ť she said. â€śIâ€™ll never hear from them again. Itâ€™s always hush-hush.â€ť
Stratemann, 46, pointed to the example of Bart, a 1-year-old dog that snapped his leg during a race last year and was set to be put down before she stepped in and paid $2,600 for three rounds of surgery. She said the trainer has not asked about the dogâ€™s well-being since the incident.
Rader, the trainer, said he had given the dog to a veterinarian and had no idea he had been passed to Stratemann. Almost all of his dogs are adopted once they retire from racing, he said.
â€śSoniaâ€™s a little radical for me,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s a shame they make these bogus claims, because I donâ€™t know how weâ€™re going to survive when they win their campaign.â€ť
Maya Stratemann walks Bart, an injured racing greyhound, across the yard of her home, where her mother, Sonia Stratemann, operates Elite Greyhound Adoptions South Florida in Loxahatchee. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)
Sonia Stratemann shows X-rays of her greyhound Bartâ€™s leg, which broke during a race last year. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)
Sonia Stratemann pets one of her rescued greyhounds that she keeps at her home in Loxahatchee. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)
At the track, gamblers say they expect the initiative to win.
Roger Littleton, 70, a retired nuclear radiation inspector, said he came to the track for â€śthe mental stimulation and the entertainment.â€ť
â€śItâ€™s a world you can immerse yourself in,â€ť he said. â€śThe most I ever won is $700, but itâ€™s not about the money. Iâ€™ll play cards or do sports betting if itâ€™s banned, but I would prefer it to stay open.â€ť
Tony Huddleston, 62, who resurfaces tennis and basketball courts, has gone to the Sanford Orlando track every week since 1985. â€śI come here with $20 and talk to people. How can you save dogs from themselves when theyâ€™re born to do this? I donâ€™t get it. I donâ€™t know what Iâ€™d do if it went. I donâ€™t know where Iâ€™d go.â€ť
Jeff Sonken, 50, a painter, said proponents of the ban â€śdonâ€™t come from here. They donâ€™t know the reality.â€ť
â€śAll their money comes from Hollywood and New York,â€ť he said. â€śTheyâ€™re sending their money down here, but they donâ€™t know anything about Florida.â€ť
Grant, the trainer, sounded pessimistic about their odds.
â€śWeâ€™d be lucky to survive,â€ť he said. â€śIn a few years, a lot of our tracks will be closed, but weâ€™ll fight to the end.â€ť
Roger Littleon looks over his racing program at the Sanford Orlando Kennel Club. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)