Part One: W.Va. Will Soon Have The Country's Last Greyhound Tracks
Next year, West Virginia will have the last two greyhound racing tracks in the United States. The state government is bound by law to support the greyhound racing operations at two casinos — in Wheeling and Cross Lanes.
In this four-part radio series, West Virginia Public Broadcasting (WVPB) goes inside West Virginia’s dog racing world and examines the economic, humane and legal elements that make this sport unique and controversial.
Part one takes us to the track, where wagering patrons and a staff of greyhound handlers keep the tote boards lit up and the dogs running.
The Country’s Last Two Dog Tracks
It's 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon at the Wheeling Island Casino and Track in Ohio County. Long-time greyhound racing fan Michael Palmer is one of about 50 patrons watching today’s races.
“We’re mostly retired,'' Palmer said. “This is all we’ve got to do is come here and watch the races and make a little bit of money. Hopefully we win.”
Across the country, greyhound racing is on a rapid decline. By 2023, this track, along with one other in West Virginia, will be the last two remaining greyhound racing tracks in the nation.
Some want the sport to continue in West Virginia. But a future for greyhound racing in the state is not guaranteed. To understand why, you have to understand its relationship to casinos.
The Mardi Gras Casino and Resort in Cross Lanes, Kanawha County hosts West Virginia’s other greyhound track. That’s where you’ll find Greg Conliffe betting on the dogs. He watches the races, not trackside, but on a big screen monitor near the slot machines and the cashier’s window.
“It's just like an athlete,” Conliffe said. “You find out who the best athletes are out there and that's the one that you stay with all the time.”
Some, like Mardi Gras racing bettors Matt and Judy Blowers, hope West Virginia becomes the focal point for greyhound enthusiasts around the country. Judy said it’s too bad that states like Florida, Iowa and Arkansas have lost out on the sport.
“I think it's a shame because, especially since COVID, people need a way to relax and have fun,'' Judy Blowers said. “My mortgage is already paid. I'm not here to pay my mortgage off. We needed a couple of days off just to relax.”
Down on the track, eight more dogs have come from the kennel and are heading to the starting block for the fifth of the day's 15 races.
Dogs have raced at Mardi Gras since 1985. Wheeling Island transitioned from horse to greyhound racing in 1976. There’s a reason why the sport persists today. In 2007, state legislation established exclusive rights and requirements that all state casino table games and video lottery machines can only operate where there is also horse and dog racing.
“Racing, either thoroughbred or greyhound, is integrally tied to their license to operate, and they have to continue live racing in order to keep the casinos going,” Del. Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, said.
Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, supports the state’s greyhound industry. The owner of an adopted greyhound, he said it’s a humane sport that provides hundreds of jobs and makes the state a profit.
“Greyhound racing is a pretty lucrative financial benefit to the state,” Weld said. “And so that is important to me. Because if we're going to have it, it has to be able to generate revenue, and we must have it for a reason.”
But not everyone is in favor of racing in West Virginia, including the owner of the state’s two tracks.
Delaware North owns and operates casinos around the country including both the Cross Lanes and Wheeling facilities.
In a statement, Delaware North spokesperson Glen White said greyhound racing is losing money and public interest. White said the industry is seeing, “fewer patrons, an older customer base and declining revenue overall.”
Over the past five years, he said the number of patrons at Wheeling Island has dropped by 60 percent, and by 40percent at Mardi Gras.
Delaware North supports the national trend to uncouple state government and greyhound racing. White said, “We would support it if West Virginia legislation passed that would allow us to operate the casinos without operating racing.”
But not everyone wants to see the uncoupling of racing and casinos.
Greyhound breeder Steve Sarras is president of the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association. Sarras said live dog racing fuels casino table games and video lottery activity. He said the state should double up when the two West Virginia tracks become America’s dog racing mecca.
“If we went as a group to the track, some people might say, ‘hey, I'm gonna play blackjack, I'm gonna go play poker. I'm gonna go play the dogs, I'm gonna go play horses,’” Sarras said. “So usually, when they race live, casino play goes up. And all of that stuff, it benefits the state, the state gets extra money. When Arkansas and Iowa close, it's only gonna go up from there.”
Delaware North said its top priority in operating racing is doing so to the highest standards for the safety and well-being of the greyhounds.
Last year, West Virginia records for the two tracks showed more than 600 greyhounds were injured, nearly 200 suffered broken bones and ten dogs died.
Dr. Mark Webster, Mardi Gras track veterinarian since 2002, said challenges in pandemic staffing contributed to the medical problems.
“They had to streamline all the employees and everything just to make things go,” Webster said. “We weren't able to retain some of the more experienced people that can solve some of these problems.”
Webster also said these greyhounds are athletes, born and bred to run.
Listen to West Virginia Morning for part two of “Greyhound Racing In W.Va. – Last Of A Dying Breed.” In our next story, Morgantown reporter Chris Schulz will talk with greyhound breeders, greyhound protection activists, lawmakers and dog track staff.