Industry can learn from greyhound ban

A dog named Rain Spot crossed the wire first in Saturday's 10th race at Raynham Park, a track that has been around for 69 years, and then it was over. Rain Spot's race is the last dog race that will ever be run in Massachusetts, a state where voters decided the sport was so cruel to its animals that it had to come to an end. With a ban on dog racing in the Bay State about to go into effect Jan. 1, Raynham ran its last-ever card Saturday.

Raynham's closing is not, of course, a horseracing story. It is a cautionary tale for every other animal-related sport that doesn't do nearly enough to protect its competitors while racing and guarantee them safe, dignified retirements after their careers are over. Sadly, horse racing falls into that category.

In a different era, dog racing flourished in Massachusetts. Wonderland, a couple of miles north of Suffolk Downs, was one of the top greyhound tracks in the sport. The Raynham and Taunton tracks were also viable operations with long, proud histories. But dog racing fell into steep decline and by the mid-nineties attendance and handle had reached pitiful levels.

Much of that had to do with some of the same problems facing horse racing: aging fan bases, competition from casinos, crumbling facilities. But what finally killed off dog racing in Massachusetts was the public's aversion to animal cruelty. Attitudes had changed dramatically over the years; mistreating an animal in any way was no longer okay. There's little doubt that animal cruelty issue played a major part over the years in the public turning away from dog racing. Then the voters of Massachusetts had their say in November 2008, passing the Greyhound Protection Act by a 56-44 margin.

It took an organized campaign from animal rights activists to make that happen. But what they had to tell the voters of Massachusetts resonated with the electorate.

They shed light on an industry that had long tolerated kennel owners killing their dogs after their racing days were over. Plenty of grisly stories seemed to come out each year, like the 2002 report that the remains of 3,000 greyhounds were found on the property of a former racetrack security guard in Alabama. The ex-guard said he was sometimes paid $10 to shoot a dog.

Animal rights activists also successfully argued that racing dogs were kept in crammed, stacked cages for as many as 20 hours a day and that hundreds of dogs were seriously injured each year while racing.

Ironically, the greyhound industry has done a commendable job curbing the widespread killing of dogs once they are done racing. The industry teamed with dog lovers and retirement groups in a concerted effort to find homes for as many retired racers as possible. According to the Greyhound Racing Association of America, more than 152,000 greyhounds have been adopted as pets since 1990.

It has been a case of too little too late. There are a few dog tracks left, many of them in Florida. But this is a sport that is bound for extinction.

With the high-profile breakdowns of Eight Belles and Barbaro and repeated reports that have shed light on the sport's drug problems, racing has had its own share of problems with animal rights activists. But no one has talked about banning horse racing and any efforts to do so probably wouldn't get very far. The sport is fortunate that its image is better than dog racing's and that the public has more of a soft spot for man's best friend than it does for horses.

Yet, what has happened in Massachusetts to the dog racing game should be a wakeup call to everyone in horse racing. Does this sport do enough for the horses? The answer is an unequivocal and resounding no. The public sees that, and a public that believes there is even a hint of animal cruelty involved in a sport is not going to support it or be a customer of it.

There are many wonderful people in this sport who care about the animal. There are organizations that have done their part to see to it that horses don't go to slaughter. Any list of the "good guys" has to include The Jockey Club, Suffolk Downs and the New York Racing Association.

But there are also a lot of people out there who just don't get it. There are breeders and owners, very wealthy individuals, who do nothing to support the retirement organizations, most of which are having serious financial problems, all of which routinely solicit these people. There are influential organizations like the American Association of Equine Practitioners that stand in the way of passage of anti-slaughter legislation.

The public is demanding more. This is still a sport where catastrophic injury rates are far too high, where thousands of thoroughbreds go to slaughter every year and where the use of legal drugs is condoned.

This isn't just the right thing to do. It's the smart thing to do. When the public turns away from your product, the only thing to do is to fix the product. That's the proper business decision. But horse racing tries to get by with half measures and spin rather than seriously attacking the problems that have turned the public off.

The greyhound industry made the same mistakes. And look where it is now.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.