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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

On the brink.

Greyhound racing in the state of West Virginia was in a precarious position earlier this month after the Senate and House approved a bill to defund the West Virginia Greyhound Development Fund on July 1. The measure was sent to Gov. Jim Justice for his signature or veto.

At risk were up to 1,700 jobs directly and indirectly related to greyhound racing in the state as well as a far-reaching negative economic impact locally and statewide. West Virginia Kennel Owners Association President Steve Sarras said the legislation would deal “a death blow” to the greyhound racing industry.

On Saturday morning, April 8, Justice journeyed to Wheeling and with the stroke of his pen vetoed the legislation at Independence Hall. A large gathering of greyhound racing supporters jammed the hall for the governor’s visit.

“If we get rid of greyhound racing it will mean job losses and fewer people coming to West Virginia. Eliminating support for the greyhounds is a job killer and I can’t sign it,” Justice said. “The last thing we need to do is drive more people out of West Virginia. We can’t turn our back on communities like Wheeling that benefit from dog racing.”

The governor added, “Greyhounds are born runners, and I hope to keep them running in West Virginia for a very long time.”

With the state facing a budget deficit, Senate and House leadership targeted the $15 million from the greyhound development fund. They argued the state was subsidizing the greyhound industry – a misconception.

The money in the greyhound development fund comes directly from a percentage of wagers placed at the racinos – not a state subsidy, Sarras said. People who never go to the casino do not put up one dime for the fund.

Justice’s veto brought a sense of relief – the greyhound world could finally exhale. Lawmakers still had time to override his veto, but it never materialized.

Although support for greyhound racing came from far and wide, Sarras deserves a standing ovation for his tireless, dedicated and passionate efforts before and during the legislative session. He worked his butt off for the industry as did countless other individuals and groups.

It truly was a concerted effort with one goal in mind – save greyhound racing in West Virginia. They persevered, never yielded and battled for what was right – in the end good finally triumphed.

“It was a huge team effort. We received a tremendous amount of help from a big army of people very passionate about the greyhound industry,” Sarras said.

“Our energy was funneled into a weapon that took down Goliath. We were the underdogs, like Rocky and Rudy.

“The passion of the industry is what they (opposition) didn’t count on,” Sarras said.

Support came from the National Greyhound Association, City of Wheeling, Ohio County, state greyhound associations, adoption groups, racing fans, greyhound owners and kennel workers – many from other states, Sarras noted. All were united, fighting for a cause.

Even though the bill to end the greyhound development fund passed both the Senate and House, Sarras said there were legislative champions in both chambers – firmly backing the industry.

Legislators going “above and beyond” in support of racing, Sarras said, included Delegate Shawn Fluharty, Delegate Erikka Storch and Senator Mike Maroney, as well as senators Ryan Weld, Richard Ojeda, Ron Stollings and Ryan Ferns; delegates Andrew Byrd, Philip Diserio, Jeff Eldride, Mike Caputo, Zack Maynard, Michael Ferro, Pat McGeehan and Isaac Sponaugle.

Sarras spent four weeks in Charleston during the process. The saddest day for him came when the House followed the Senate’s lead and passed the measure after delaying the vote for several days.

“Each day workers from the kennels in Wheeling went down to Charleston (three-hour trip) to fight for their jobs only to have House leadership ask for a delay because they didn’t have the votes. It was infuriating me,” Sarras said. “When the bill passed, it was heartbreaking to see the workers and their families crying, not knowing what the future held for them. They looked for answers and we had none.”

Justice had the answer, though, when he vetoed the bill a week later.

“Gov. Justice is a very passionate person – a regular guy who cares deeply about the state and the people working in the state,” Sarras said. “He’s business-savvy, he did not have an agenda like some legislators who were anti-racing or anti-gambling. He acted in the best interest of the state and its workers and we thank him.”

There’s no doubt where Sarras’ passion for the industry comes from – his father, Manny.

“My father loved the industry, and I inherited his fire,” Sarras said. “When I go to fight, I give it everything I got.”

I was introduced to greyhound racing by a friend in the late 1970s at Wheeling Downs and fell in love with the sport and the athletes immediately. Throughout the years, I have developed a deep passion for racing. In the mid 1990s, I started writing a weekly greyhound column and shortly thereafter became a writer for The Greyhound Review.

I have enjoyed watching and writing about these wonderful competitors, including All-Americans DD's Nelson, Kiowa Sweet Trey, Gene's Champion, WW Apple Jax, Greys Royalcrown, Nimby TP Jan, Hi Noon Hero, Gable Sour Cream, KB's Ruckus and Cry Case.