Dogs to Horses: Pay Attention, Be Proactive

Horse racing can learn lessons from Greyhound racing, officials said.

by Aleta Walther

The Greyhound racing industry has some words of advice for the horse racing industry: Pay attention to what’s going on.

The annual conference of the American Greyhound Tracks of America in Las Vegas the week of March 22 attracted slightly more participants than the recent joint conference of the Harness Tracks of America and Thoroughbred Racing Associations. Speakers told similar stories, however, and the issues and challenges facing all three industries are clearly the same.

About 120 people pre-registered for the annual AGTOA meeting, and it appeared that roughly 100 made it to the first sessions March 22. The HTA/TRA meeting in California March 9-11 attracted only about 70 people to any of the public presentations.

Like those at the HTA/TRA conference, the speakers at the AGTOA meeting lamented the drop in attendance, but noted they were pleased by the turnout considering the state of the Greyhound racing industry.

“To say our industry is in trouble is an understatement,” said Karen Keelan, outgoing AGTOA president and president of Seabrook Greyhound Park in New Hampshire. “With the closing of numerous tracks and the anticipated closing of others, it is hard to remain optimistic. It is more important than ever to come together to forge alliances that will be beneficial to all of us.”

Following the morning presentations, Keelan expanded upon her opening remarks by saying that many of the problems Greyhound racing is experiencing parallel those of Thoroughbred racing, and in some cases may foretell horse racing’s future.

Though sliding attendance and diving handle are endemic across all the pari-mutuel industries in the United States and Canada, animal rights activists have so far had greater success in their attacks on Greyhound racing than on horses. Several states, including Massachusetts, have banned Greyhound racing outright, and more states appear ready to follow.

“I strongly advise that horse racing’s leadership not take animal rights groups lightly,” Keelan said.

Timothy Leuschner, incoming president of AGTOA and associate general manager/simulcasting director at Jacksonville Greyhound Racing in Orange Park, Fla., echoed Keelan’s sentiments. “The animal rights issue has done more to harm Greyhound racing than anything else,” he said.

In response to allocations that injured and retired Greyhounds were being routinely slaughtered, the AGTOA and National Greyhound Association—the industry breed registry—established the American Greyhound Association 20 years ago. The AGA’s mission is to ensure the welfare of racing Greyhounds, and includes schools for trainers, farm inspections to ensure Greyhounds are getting proper care, and expedited transfer of dogs to adoption facilities.

“It is not the rescue groups driving adoptions, but the industry itself,” Leuschner said. “Addressing animal activists’ concerns on retirement, however, has become a double-edged sword.  Now that the Greyhound retirement issue has been addressed, the animal rights groups are focusing on how the dogs are treated while racing.”

Keelan and Leuschner said the horse racing industry should pay close attention to how animal rights activists have impacted Greyhound racing, and how the industry is addressing those attacks.

“With the injuries that horse racing has had the past few years in high-profile races such as the Triple Crown events, there is more attention focused on what happens to horses after they retire,” Leuschner said. “In addition, with the recent legislation addressing the slaughter of horses, I think the horses are going to get more pressure from the animal rights groups.”

Keelan believes that there is strength in numbers, and said she is hopeful the different pari-mutuel racing groups will pull together to address the animal rights issues in racing, among other challenges and threats.

“There has never been any real unity or community between the three groups,” Keelan said. “It’s never too late. We should come together for a united force between harness, Thoroughbreds, and Greyhound leaders.”