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Greyhounds could be at risk if racing subsidies end

Photo provided to The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register Members of the West Virginia Legislature are considering measures that may result in the end of greyhound racing at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and the Mardi Gras Casino and Resort in Charleston.
Photo provided to The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register
Members of the West Virginia Legislature are considering measures that may result in the end of greyhound racing at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and the Mardi Gras Casino and Resort in Charleston.

WHEELING, W.Va. — The answer to “who let the dogs out” could be West Virginia lawmakers if legislation to end dog breeder subsidies passes the legislature, and as many as 3,000 racing greyhounds leave the track.

In addition, about 1,700 workers who handle the dogs likely would be unemployed, according to Steve Sarras, president of the West Virginia Kennel Association.

Two bills to stop the subsidies are currently alive in the West Virginia Legislature. And Sarras said if either passes, it won’t be just breeders who will be affected.

“(If legislation passes) no kennel operation can remain in business,” he said. “And if there are no kennels in business, there are no employees. And if there are no kennels and no employees, there are no dogs that can race.

“There are over 3,000 dogs that won’t have funding for proper and humane care.”

The next question is, what becomes of the dogs suddenly unbridled from the track?

“I don’t have that answer,” Sarras responded.

Sarras said while about 3,000 dogs across the state are involved in dog racing, there are about 1,700 employees involved with caring for them.

A Wheeling resident, Sarras said he himself supplies about 150 dogs to the state’s two dog racing tracks – the local Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack, and the Mardi Gras Casino and Resort near Charleston.

He also employs about 10 workers to assist his canines.

“If this passes, all will be laid off,” Sarras said. “Racing is finished. It changes everything.”

There are presently two bills in the West Virginia Legislature that seek to eliminate dog breeder subsidies and redirect those dollars into the state’s general fund.

The first, House Bill 4625, takes the money from breeders, but still mandates the tracks continue to offer dog racing if they want to maintain their video lottery and table gambling licenses.

Senate Bill 641 – known as the “decoupling bill” – also takes money from the breeders, but also would give the tracks the option of whether or not to continue dog racing while keeping other gambling operations active.

Grey2K, a greyhound protection group, supports both bills while seeking to eliminate dog racing in the state, according to executive director Carey Theil.

He believes the number of greyhounds involved in dog racing in West Virginia to be exaggerated by the kennels, and that the number is somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 canines.

Grey2K has fought to eliminate dog racing in West Virginia largely because of the high number of injuries to the greyhounds, he claimed. The two dog racing tracks in West Virginia have the highest rate of injuries for dogs among tracks in states where such data is collected, Theil alleged.

He also questions whether the number of greyhounds needing adoptions would be significantly greater if dog racing in West Virginia were suddenly stopped.

“All these dogs have short racing careers,” he said. “Most start racing when they’re about 18 months of age, and most are out of industry by age 3 – all of them by age 4.

“They will need to find a home in the next year or two, anyway.”

The publicity surrounding the closure of dog racing tracks also makes it easier for greyhounds to find a permanent home after retirement, according to Theil. When dog racing was eliminated in the states of New Hampshire and Massachusetts during the last decade, those states saw a record number of greyhound adoptions, he said.

“When these bills pass, there’s an opportunity for these dogs to find homes faster,” he said. “There’s a lot of media coverage. That’s what happened in other states.”

Many of the dogs will go on to race in other states, Theil said. In addition to the two dog tracks in West Virginia, there are 17 others in the nation – including 12 in Florida, two in Alabama, and one each in Arizona, Arkansas and Iowa.

The racing industry has been in decline, though, in recent years. At its peak in 1991, there were 60 dog tracks in 19 states.

“Because dog racing is so subsidized, you have higher end tracks in West Virginia,” he said. “The quality of dog in terms of performance is higher in West Virginia.

“If we use the 3,000 dog number, our larger concern is that 1,500 to 2,000 of them will go on to race at other tracks and displace other dogs. Then those are the dogs that will be up for adoption.”

Veterinarian Dr. James Radcliffe of Wheeling treats the dogs injured at the Wheeling Island dog track, and is himself the owner of three rescued greyhounds.

He wonders why West Virginia lawmakers are singling out dog racing, and making no efforts to stop horse racing in the state.

“Nobody sits on a dog and beats it with a stick to make it go faster,” Radcliffe said. “The dogs run because they love to run. They’re doing what they were bred to do.

“And if a dog breaks a leg while racing, they don’t shoot it on the track. That’s what they do to a horse.”

He agrees most of the dogs would go on to race in other states if greyhound racing is eliminated in West Virginia, while other dogs would be put up for adoption.

“There’s too many people in the industry speaking out,” Radcliffe said. “Is any dog going to be put down or be destroyed because of this? No.”

He said he doesn’t think West Virginia lawmakers are looking at the bigger picture, and how the bills will affect the kennel workers, businesses that sell feed, and others who assist the the dogs.

Greyhound adoption group Project Racing Home of Randleman, N.C., has reached out to Sarras and the West Virginia breeders, offering its services if needed. But the organization can’t handle the potentially large number of idled racing canines by itself, according to its director Kimberly Jewell.

Last year, the group placed 200 greyhounds out for adoption. The facility in North Carolina has room to hold 54 greyhounds.

“We place quite a few West Virginia dogs as it is, and we work with West Virginia breeders,” Jewell said. “The West Virginia Racing Commission is a very responsible commission. They’ve set aside a fund, and we submit to them a voucher to cover the spaying and neutering of dogs.”

She said Project Racing Home already had placed 33 greyhounds this year by the end of February.

“We place a lot of dogs, but how much faster can we place them?” she asked. “I can’t even get them to the vet fast enough.”

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