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In this four-part radio series, West Virginia Public Broadcasting examines the history and future of greyhound racing in the state. In 2023, 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. Reporters Randy Yohe and Chris Schulz take us inside West Virginia’s dog racing world, examining the economic, humane and legal elements that make this sport unique and controversial.

Part Three: The Case To ‘Uncouple’ Greyhound Racing And W.Va.’s State Government

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Chris Schulz
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Greyhounds take off from the starting block at the Wheeling Island racetrack

Since 2007, West Virginia law has said state sanctioned casinos cannot operate without having horse or dog racing. A 2017 bill to eliminate the state’s role in greyhound racing was passed by the West Virginia Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Jim Justice.

Today, many legislators, like Del. Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, believes greyhound racing in West Virginia is on a quick path to extinction.

“The only thing that's really keeping it going in the two tracks in West Virginia is the requirement that they have racing in order to have the casinos and the entertainment venues that they have,” Rohrbach said. “Given their druthers, I suspect that they would get rid of those.”

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Randy Yohe
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
State law says West Virginia casinos cannot operate table games like roulette without horse or dog racing at the venue.

A company called Delaware North owns both Wheeling Island in Ohio County and Mardi Gras Casino and Resort in Kanawha County, the two West Virginia venues with greyhound racing. In a statement, spokesperson Glen White cited declining revenues and patrons, and he said the corporation favors decoupling state government and dog racing, including West Virginia.

“We would support it if legislation passed that would allow us to operate the casinos without operating racing,” White said.

Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, has fought to retain greyhound racing. He said it's a humane sport with economic benefits.

“The city of wheeling benefits directly from revenue generated here at the casino,” Weld said. “I represent the track, I represent the casino. I represent a lot of people who work at the track who work in the greyhound industry.”

Del. Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha, said even though the Mardi Gras Casino is in her backyard, West Virginia, like the rest of the states, does not belong in the dog racing business.

“What upsets me is that the government continues to get in between a business and how it runs itself. I don't like that,” Graves said. “I think the state should be willing to turn loose of that and let casinos and the people who go there decide what the fate of casinos is going to be.”

Delaware North said it makes very little profit on live greyhound racing.

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Randy Yohe
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Casino owners say the high cost of operation means very little profit for live greyhound racing.

In a statement, the corporation said, “Delaware North employs and pays about 70 employees who operate greyhound racing at the two casinos. Delaware North makes very little profit on live greyhound racing due to the high costs of its operation and limited wagering. With simulcasting, the company does make a moderate profit.”

The statewide greyhound racing and breeding industry, employing more than 1,500 people directly and indirectly, is sustained by state government intervention. A legally mandated greyhound development breeding fund pulls about $15 million a year from casino gaming profits to subsidize kennel and breeding operations.

Greyhound breeder Steve Sarras is president of the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association. He said if his dogs don’t win at the track, he doesn't get paid, so the subsidy insures survival.

“Even though you had to feed the dogs, pay for your staff, pay for the heat, the electric, the veterinary care, all of that stuff, you just would not get any income,” Sarras said. “So the way it's set up, there are built in safeguards to ensure that the dogs get the highest level of care.”

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Randy Yohe
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Casino owners say the high cost of operation means very little profit for live greyhound racing.

The racing grandstands at Mardi Gras are nearly empty on a Wednesday evening with 30 bettors at most. Delaware North said in its statement that while losing money at the track, it does make a moderate profit from the international simulcasting of West Virginia races.

Weld said that’s where the money is.

“I think that the over the wire play is the larger part of that growth. It's very significant growth,” he said.

Carey Theil is the Executive Director of Grey2KUSA, a national nonprofit greyhound protection organization. Theil said the corporate profit percentage from simulcasting is only 3 percent and greyhound breeders get nothing from simulcasting.

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Randy Yohe
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Most of the profits from simulcast greyhound racing go to out-of-state interests, according to greyhound protection organization GREY2KUSA.

“All of those revenues stay with out-of-state gambling companies,” Theil said. “Ironically, the state subsidy program for greyhound racing in the final death throes of the industry has really become a state subsidy program that benefits these out of state enter gambling companies.”

Rohrbach said if and when the state cuts ties with the sport, it needs to be sensitive to the dogs left behind – and the jobs lost.

“I also hope that we'll just look at a fair mechanism to decouple,” Rohrbach said. “It would probably have a timeline and some phase out. And I believe that's exactly what happened in the other states.”

In December, the West Memphis, Arkansas greyhound racing track, also owned by Delaware North, will be the last track in America to close, other than the two in West Virginia.

The corporation worked with Arkansas kennel owners for a three-year phaseout of racing after shutting down its Florida dog tracks.

“In recent years, racing ended at Delaware North’s Daytona Beach Racing & Card Club after Florida voters approved an amendment to prohibit racing at the 11 remaining greyhound racetracks across the state,” Delaware North said in a statement. In Arkansas, we worked with kennel owners at our Southland Casino Hotel for a three-year phaseout of racing that will be completed this December. Both Delaware North and the kennel association in Arkansas wanted certainty and clarity for the future by ending live racing via an orderly process and on our own terms.”

Many live patrons at Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras, like Joe Jackfert, see the writing on the wall. Jackfert has been playing the dogs in Wheeling since the 1970’s and said he hopes to keep playing in the future.

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Randy Yohe
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Some live racing patrons hope West Virginia keeps the only two greyhound racing tracks left in America, come 2023.

“If you look up greyhound in a dictionary, it says racing,” Jackfert said. That's what these dogs are made for is racing. This is one of the finest attractions around. I can't believe that we're gonna be the only state to have the only two tracks left.”

Many state legislators in West Virginia believe another decoupling bill will be presented in the 2023 regular legislative session.

The state is now seeing an incredible influx of greyhounds. In the fourth and final part of our radio series, Chris Schulz goes inside the national greyhound adoption industry, with West Virginia at the epicenter of it all.

Government Reporter, ryohe@wvpublic.org, 304-634-8123

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