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Tougher rules sought for racing industry

Florida Legislature looks ready to move on greyhound injury reporting

Lawmakers are looking to clamp down on the racing industry, filing bills that would require greyhound injuries be reported, tightening regulations, and increasing fines for the doping of animals.

Florida is a major player in racing, home to 12 of the nation's 23 greyhound tracks, and three thoroughbred racing tracks, including Gulfstream in Hallandale Beach and Gulfstream West (formerly Calder) in Miami Gardens.

South Florida is also home to three of the state's dog tracks – Magic City Casino in Miami, Mardi Gras Casino in Hollywood and the Palm Beach Kennel Club in West Palm Beach – as well as quarter horse racing at Hialeah Park and harness racing at Isle of Capri Casino in Pompano Beach.

The legislature has been attempting to reform pari-mutuels ever since the legalization of slots at some of these locations gave new life to the racing industry.

Greyhound injury reporting was on the agenda last session but died because it was tied to a larger reform bill. This year, a set of House and Senate bills "just allows the public access to this information," said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, who authored the Senate version.

In every other state with a dog track, the public already has such access. Florida publishes deaths, but not injuries. In 2014, 117 racing greyhounds were reported as being put down in Florida either at tracks or at animal hospitals, about one every three days.

The list shows some were killed after suffering treatable conditions such as broken legs.

"I'd like to see it end," said Sobel of dog racing. "It's archaic and barbaric. But I know it's not going to end, so I'd like to protect the greyhounds that are racing."

A separate set of bills would also mandate injury reporting, but tie it to other reforms that include a list of items tracks must implement, such as installing a safety device on the lure at dog tracks and requiring the insulation of all electrical wires. These bills would also stiffen fines for and speed up the investigation of illegal doping of racing animals.

Two years ago, a Sun-Sentinel investigation found the state agency responsible for investigating charges of doping racing animals, the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, moved far slower than colleagues in other states, and handed down much lower fines.

Right now, the division has two years before it has to begin such investigations and can only charge up to $5,000 in fines. Two sets of bills would increase fines to $10,000 and require speedier investigations. One set mandates investigations within 180 days after an animal tests positive, another set within 60 days.

South Florida race tracks, as well as the Florida Greyhound Association, did not respond to requests for comment.

In other states, investigations often begin within a week of a banned substance being detected, animals and their trainers are barred from racing while an investigation is ongoing, and fines can reach tens of thousands of dollars.

In Florida, dog tracks have seen the amount gambled on greyhounds drop 72 percent from 1990 to 2013, from more than $900 million to less than $300 million. The state's tax revenue from them fell from $76 million to $1.5 million, a 98 percent drop.

Given their operating costs, most tracks in the state are now losing millions each year by racing dogs, but they have to keep doing it in order to continue to operate their lucrative onsite slots and card rooms.

Because of that, the idea of decoupling – allowing racinos to operate their casinos with limited or no dog racing – has turned dog track owners and anti-dog racing advocates into strange bedfellows.

No legislation has been filed to decouple pari-mutuels, but decoupling could be taken up as part of the Seminole compact this year.

Parts of the Seminole tribe's gambling agreement with the state are set to end in 2015. A new compact has to be negotiated between the state and the tribe, with the governor's office leading negotiations and the legislature having final approval.

But decoupling as part of that compact faces tough odds. Dog-track owners face opposition from horse tracks, which continue to turn a profit on racing and largely do not support decoupling, and the Seminole tribe, which would rather not see an expansion of casinos at dog tracks.

dsweeney@sun-sentinel.com, 954-356-4605 or Twitter @Daniel_Sweeney

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