Texas’s last dog track to close, delighting animal-rights activists

Twenty years ago, gamblers who did not wish to run afoul of the law didn’t have many options in the United States of America. There was Las Vegas. There was Atlantic City, N.J. There were the ponies, a handful of tribal casinos and, for the brave, jai alai.

And then there were the dogs.

Though commercial dog-racing is now illegal in 39 states, the greyhounds who run in the six states currently with tracks haven’t exactly captured the popular imagination. We know names like Barbaro, American Pharoah and, of course, Secretariat. But who will make a film about the glories of Rural Rube and EA’s Itzaboy?

Now, recognizing that it is offering a pastime that is in decline, the last dog track in the Lone Star State — Gulf Greyhound Park in La Marque — will close its doors. No, Texas hasn’t declared dog-racing illegal. No, there hasn’t been a crackdown on wagering in a conservative state.

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There just aren’t enough fans in the stands — and certainly not enough at the betting window. Come New Year’s Day, the races will stop, the park announced Wednesday.

“We are unable to successfully compete with racetracks in surrounding states who offer expanded gambling opportunities,” Gulf Greyhound Park General Manager Sally Briggs said in a statement, as the Austin-American Statesman reported.

This wasn’t always the case. Gulf Greyhound Park, opened decades ago, once thrived.

“The largest greyhound racing facility in America is right here in La Marque, on I-45 between Houston and Galveston,” the park’s website read. “. . . Since 1992, GGP has been the world’s largest greyhound racing operation and has provided a variety of entertainment for race fans from Texas’ Gulf Coast and all over the world.”

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The esteem these great beasts — who can run almost 40 m.p.h. — were held in was almost religious. This “is the only canine mentioned in the Bible,” as the Texas Greyhound Association explained.

A BBC comparison of the cheetah and the greyhound. The cheetah wins — but the slow-motion video is pretty cool.

“The origin of the greyhound is deeply rooted in ancient history; murals and paintings of dogs strikingly similar to today’s greyhound existed more than 4,000 years ago,” according to the organization’s website. “From the beginning, the greyhound was held in high regard in the Middle East and throughout Europe. Pictures of the early greyhound can be found etched on walls of ancient Egyptian tombs and Pharaohs rated them first among all animals as both companions and hunters.”

In 2011, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain even put in an appearance at Gulf Greyhound Park.

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Yet the gambling boom of the past two decades — which saw an explosion of Internet gambling, state lotteries, tribal casinos, and other gaming houses in the Northeast corridor and elsewhere that’s helped push Atlantic City towards disaster — hasn’t been kind to dog tracks.

ABC13 in Texas ran down the numbers: “In 1993, the track’s first full year of business, $268.4 million came through the building. By 2004, the number dropped to $101.8 million. By 2014, the number fell to $44.3 million.” For those without calcuators, that’s more than an 80 percent drop-off in a generation.

As they might say on Wall Street: The park has a substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern.

“Mostly it’s just trying to compete with casinos in surrounding states,” Briggs told ABC13. “People want slot machines, so that’s where they go. Mostly to Louisiana.”

Animal rights activist were ecstatic. The greyhound racing industry has long been decried for its treatment of animals.

“Dog racing will soon be a thing of the past in one of the states that still plays host to the cruel form of entertainment,” Stephen Messenger of the Dodo, a New York based website “for the love of animals,” wrote.

Christine Dorchak, the president of the GREY2K USA animal advocacy group, told the Statesman the closing was “a victory for everyone in the state who cares about dogs.”

Some, however, were sad to see racing go.

“It’s fun,” Mary Terbarak, who comes to the park a few times per week, told ABC 13. “They give you hints of who might win and stuff like that.”

But the price of closing the park is not just nostalgia. Closing a business — even a struggling one — has an economic cost. Up to 300 people work at the park, the Statesman reported.

“It’s a big impact on the kennel owners, too,” Nick James, the executive director of the Texas Greyhound Association, told the paper. “It’s huge deal, and it’s going to be felt across the country.”

Yet: “Their prudent monetary decision is to close,” James said.