LOS ANGELES - For years, fans of greyhound races have faced off against animal welfare activists who say the dogs are kept muzzled in small cages, fed inferior food, injected with steroids and frequently injured at the track. Dog breeders, owners and racing lobbyists counter that the dogs are well-tended and love to run.
Despite their disagreement on conditions for the dogs, there is no disputing this: Greyhound racing is in a steep decline. Racing fans blame the economy and competition from instant gambling like slot machines. Activists say it's time to end the races altogether.
Ten years ago, there were 50 greyhound tracks in 15 states. Today there are just 25 tracks in seven states, with 13 of them in Florida, once considered the hub of dog racing.
Nationally, money bet on greyhound races dropped from $3.5 billion to $1.1 billion between 1991 and 2007, said Gary Thompson, director of corporate communications for Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas. Caesars owns Bluffs Run Greyhound Park in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
And there are probably fewer than 300 greyhound farms today, down from as many as 750 in the 1980s, at the peak of greyhound racing, said Gary Guccione, executive director of the National Greyhound Association.
Tucson Greyhound Park in Arizona was built in 1944 and at one time drew 3,000 bettors a day. Today, they are lucky if 50 or 60 people show up. Tom Taylor, the park's CEO and general manager, attributes the slide to state lotteries and tribal casinos along with the aging of racing fans and animal activist campaigns. He says adding slot machines could help save the park, but would face serious opposition from the tribes who run Arizona's 27 casinos.
Iowa's two track owners want to call it quits, but can't because they were allowed to build casinos or gambling halls on track grounds on the condition they keep the races running. Now the attached casinos subsidize 94 percent of race purses, Thompson said.
"The gaming industry is subsidizing a dying greyhound racing industry in Iowa," Thompson said.
Track owners have offered Iowa $10 million a year for seven years for permission to end the races, but the Iowa legislature would have to change the law that made casino operations contingent on the tracks' existence. That seems unlikely to happen this season with the legislative session ending in a matter of days.
Measures introduced in the Florida state legislature would allow some tracks to close there as well, but the Florida Greyhound Association opposes the proposal, with lobbyist Jack Cory saying it could cost 3,000 families their jobs or small businesses.
Greyhounds live an average of 12 years and run between 42 and 45 mph, making them the fastest dogs in the world. Most racing dogs are between 1 1/2 and 5 years old.
Most races are just over a quarter-mile and average 31 seconds. Marathons are just under a half-mile and average 44 seconds, while middle distance races cover 3/8 of a mile and take about 38 seconds, Guccione said. Pari-mutuel betting is similar to horse racing, with the standard bet being $2.
Ann Church, senior director of government relations for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has been fighting the industry since the 1970s when dogs were "trained on live rabbits, kittens and other small animals," she said.
"Racing is dangerous," she said. "As they go around the different turns, they are prone to crashing into each other. Their legs get mixed up and they go down and when they go down, there are often broken bones, punctured lungs and other problems."
Injuries include broken legs, paralysis, head trauma and death from cardiac arrest, said Carey Thiel, co-founder and executive director of Grey2KUSA, a Massachusetts-based anti-racing group. He points to state records that show nearly 900 reported dog injuries in Massachusetts from 2002 to 2009; 1,200 injuries at three tracks in New Hampshire from 2005 to 2008, and 3,200 injuries at a West Virginia track between 2005 and 2010, including 150 injuries so severe the dogs were euthanized.
As the industry has lost money, Church claims conditions for the dogs have degenerated. "Dogs are confined, often with their muzzles on, for 20 hours a day because there are not enough people to care for them," she said. "The irony that a dog that so much likes to run is kept in a cage 20 hours a day is heartbreaking."
But Guccione, of the National Greyhound Association, says kennel crates are "very comfortable and plenty big enough. They jump into them gladly." They are padded with carpeting or shredded paper and the "crate is their home, their room, their happy place." He also says the chance of injury per race start is less than one-tenth of 1 percent.
Church says the dogs are also fed a low grade of food not fit for human consumption, but Cory, the Florida lobbyist, says the racing dogs are "fed the same quality of food I feed my dog, and he sleeps in my bed with me."
Greyhound farm inspections have been conducted since 1987 through a joint effort of the NGA and the American Greyhound Council, Guccione said. "We find the vast majority of farms to be in great condition and the greyhounds on those farms are in great condition," Guccione said.
Taylor says the activists' "blinders are so tight they can't see outside their agenda."
Church and Thiel would agree with him. "We are out to end racing because greyhound racing in this country is cruel and we see no way it could be anything but cruel," Church said.