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Stan Pawloski

Feb 24, 2020

Greyhound racing in West Virginia came under attack again this year.

A bill introduced by Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, in the current legislative session would have eliminated the Greyhound Breeding Development Fund on July 1. Passage of Senate Bill 285 would most likely deal “a death blow” to greyhound racing, according to West Virginia Kennel Owners Association President Steve Sarras.

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.

The greyhound industry, local lawmakers and countless communities inside and outside of racing joined hands in a team effort with a single goal in mind – save the sport. They persevered, never yielded and battled tooth and nail – eventually prevailing.

Last week, Senate Bill 285 – directing roughly $17 million from the Greyhound Breeding Development Fund to the State Excess Lottery Fund – was rejected by a solid 23-11 margin. All 14 Democratic senators were joined by nine Senate Republicans to kill the bill.

In 2017, both the Senate and House approved a similar bill before it was vetoed by Gov. Jim Justice.

“This year sends a powerful message. The bill, sponsored by the Senate president (Carmichael), was defeated on the Senate floor with 67 percent of the vote and bipartisan support,” Sarras said. “I can’t say enough about the passion of our greyhound community, our lawmakers and the support we received from people in and out of the industry.

We owe them all a debt of gratitude – they saved the greyhound industry.” Local senators leading the push for greyhound racing were Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, and Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, who both spoke on the Senate floor before the vote, and Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, a member of the Senate Finance Committee. Although the legislation never made it to the House, Sarras said Delegates Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, and Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, were “very involved and engaged.

“All of our lawmakers were champions and did a fantastic job of finding out all the facts about greyhound racing and educating other lawmakers to the truth,” Sarras said. “Some had no idea how greyhound racing impacts other businesses, benefits all 55 counties in the state and is not a state subsidy.”

It was no secret the greyhound industry would be targeted this year in West Virginia by the out-of-state, anti-racing group Grey2K. The latter had a hand in the approval of Amendment 13 in Florida which ends greyhound racing in that state in December 2020.

Late last year, Grey2K Executive Director Carey Theil confirmed in a Charleston Gazette-Mail story he had a dialogue with Carmichael and indicated West Virginia “will be, speaking for us, an unprecedented lobbying campaign in terms of investment in every sense. In terms of substantial financial investment, time and focus.”

For years, the Massachusetts-based Grey2K organization has used questionable tactics and spread misinformation concerning the greyhound industry to deceive the public. They tried it this year in West Virginia, but their sales pitch failed miserably.

Grey2K depicted greyhound racing as a dying industry (their poll claimed most West Virginians want it eliminated), an inhumane sport and supported by state tax dollars.

“A paid poll by an out-of-state special interest group (Grey2K) asked pointed questions to illicit pointed responses. It was discredited when 67 percent of the Senate voted to keep greyhound racing,” Sarras noted. “Their claims of cruel and inhumane treatment of greyhounds was discredited too. We had first-hand accounts from Sen. Ryan Weld and Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld who both visited the kennels and were impressed with how the greyhounds are treated.”

On the Senate floor before the vote, Weld disputed a claim by Carmichael that one greyhound dies at the two racetracks in West Virginia every 10 days. West Virginia Racing Commission public record over the last five years didn’t support those claims.

Sarris said the opposition’s numbers focused on more than a decade old kennel cough and influenza epidemic that lead to numerous deaths in not only the greyhound population but the entire canine population.

Weld took exception to another claim by Carmichael and Grey2K that greyhound racing is “an industry in decline.”

Over the past 10 years, the handle on greyhound racing increased 34 percent, from $92 million in 2010 to $124 million in 2019, Weld said. During the same period, the handle for horse racing decreased 15 percent.

“To say this is an industry in decline, that’s simply a misnomer,” Weld said.

After the Florida tracks close their doors at the end of 2020 and Arkansas in December 2022, only a handful of states will still offer greyhound racing nationwide. Ihlenfeld, speaking to his fellow senators, feels this is the time for West Virginia to build the business.

“There aren’t many industries in our state that we control. We’re getting close to being the only game in town when it comes to this industry,” Ihlenfeld said. “Instead of kicking this to the curb, we ought to embrace it. We ought to modernize it. We ought to make it even better and allow even more people to send money to West Virginia.” Ihlenfeld is right, there will be a greyhound racing market out there and West Virginia has an opportunity to capture it.

Grey2K’s claim the greyhound industry is supported by state tax dollars was discredited in the Senate Finance Committee meeting. Richie Heath, a lobbyist for Grey2K, finally admitted the racing industry is not funded by a state subsidy after being grilled by Ihlenfeld and Maroney.

The money in the Greyhound Breeding 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.

The potential loss of hundreds and hundreds of jobs in the greyhound industry caught the attention of lawmakers.

Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, who acknowledged he does not support legalized gambling, said the Senate Bill 285 was a job-killer.

“As a state, we are always willing to take a job away from someone else, to take jobs away from someone else’s area. All we have to do is look at Southern West Virginia to see how that’s worked,” Smith said. “I voted to end greyhound racing twice … in good conscience, I can’t vote today to do away with these people’s jobs.”

Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron, voicing support for greyhound racing before the Senate Finance Committee, said approval of the bill would be “catastrophic” to the city.

“The (Wheeling Island casino) itself is a large employer for the city of Wheeling, one of the largest employers and one of our largest taxpayers,” Herron said. “The short term would obviously be an impact on the city’s budget for revenue directly from dog racing.”

Sarras, who relocated to West Virginia years ago from Massachusetts after receiving a kennel booking at Wheeling Island, feels for the racing workers.

“I see people in tears because they don’t know from year to year if they are going to have a job. That isn’t right. These workers pay taxes and raise families here in the state,” Sarras said. “They are tough individuals and take pride in being a West Virginian. They are not going to be bullied.”

Wheeling Island President and General Manager Kim Florence said day-to-day operations at the facility will continue as they have since greyhound racing was launched 1976.

“We’re going to continue to run live racing with the highest standards of performance and safety of our greyhounds,” Florence said. “We’ve been doing that for 40 plus years now, and we’re going to continue to do so.”

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