Jon Reed

Journalist in Birmingham, Ala.

As greyhound racing declines nationwide, the Birmingham Race Course is in ‘survival mode’

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This article appeared on on July 27, 2014.


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — The clubhouse level of the Birmingham Race Course is quiet before the dogs hit the track for the first run of the night. Dozens of people sit scattered at tables and counters, some in small groups, many alone.

It’s quiet, one patron said, because this isn’t a place to hang out. The people here at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday for the greyhound races are here to make money, or at least to try.

But it’s quiet for another reason. The crowd Wednesday night is about average, but it’s still slim. The crowds aren’t what they used to be.

The Birmingham Race Course, like the other 20 greyhound tracks nationwide, is in a daily fight for its life. That’s because dog races alone aren’t enough in an era when there are so many other ways to gamble.

The first dream of racing on that vast stretch of land beside Ruffner Mountain between Irondale and Trussville didn’t involve dogs. It was a dream of horse racing.

Going to the dogs

Judy Thompson, of Thompson Tractor Company, built the Birmingham Race Course in the 1980s with the idea of turning it into a horse track on the level of Saratoga Race Course in New York.

“They had visions of it being this grand horse-racing venue,” said Kip Keefer, the executive director of the Birmingham Racing Commission. “They referred to it as potentially the Saratoga of the South.”

The track was a massive facility that cost $90 million to build and opened in 1987, Keefer said. But the horse racing never became profitable, and the course only lasted a year. Delaware North, a track management company, came in and ran the course for a couple of years, but the races again failed to pay the bills.

Milton McGregor, who’d had success with greyhound racing at his VictoryLand track in Shorter, bought the track from the bank in 1992 and, with the help of a referendum making it legal, brought dog racing to Birmingham.

For a couple of years, the course ran both horse and greyhound races, but the horse wasn’t popular enough to be profitable, so those stopped in 1995. Since then, no race contestant in Birmingham has had a jockey.

Innovative operation

You can, of course, still bet on horse races at the Birmingham Race Course. They’re piped in from Belmont, Penn National, Louisiana Downs and many other tracks around the country to seemingly countless television screens. Bets can be made on other greyhound races, too, from Wheeling, in West Virginia, and tracks like Daytona and Palm Beach in Florida.

Simulcast bets make up about two-thirds of the wagers made at the Birmingham Race Course, Keefer said, often just because of the numbers. The greyhounds in Birmingham run 85 to 100 live races every week, while there are opportunities to bet on 1,200 to 1,500 simulcast races. And while the live races are only run five days a week, the simulcasts are open every single day.

When it reopened in the ’90s, the Birmingham course was one of the first in the nation to take advantage of simulcasting, according to Keefer, who served as the course’s general manager from 1994 to 1998.

“Birmingham was one of the more innovative operations,” he said. “While greyhound racing was being made possible, Birmingham became one of the first sites in the country to have extensive simulcasting. Simulcasting has grown to be an industry standard now 20-some-odd years later.”

While the wagers on races at other courses help, it hasn’t made the course a booming business.

Survival mode

In May, representatives for the course said they were about three years behind on property taxes and asked the Racing Commission for about $800,000 to pay the delinquent taxes. The course, citing the rising costs of simulcast, asked for the money from an escrow account set up from a portion of the wagers at the course.

The commission approved $398,000 for the course. Board member Tom Dawkins was the only member to vote against it, saying the account was designed to fund winners’ purses for horse racing. Dipping into that fund, horse racing proponents said, would reduce the incentives for people to bring horse racing back.

In 2010 and 2011, the Racing Commission allowed the course to use a total of $550,000 from an escrow account set aside to aid and encourage horse racing for maintenance and upgrades to simulcasting equipment.

Simulcasting is one of the reasons the action at the Birmingham Race Course, even on a nice night, isn’t in the grandstands. Many people go to bet on more races than just those happening outside. But even the races, which will draw 750 to 800 people on a daily basis, aren’t enough to sustain greyhound tracks.

In Florida, the tracks often thrive on the proceeds from poker rooms. The livelihoods of other courses are tied to the fate of in-house casinos.

In the 2000s, the course made efforts to bring in a secondary form of revenue: Las Vegas-style bingo machines. Those efforts ran into political trouble, and Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies at one point raided the course and confiscated machines. At VictoryLand and Greenetrack, where live greyhound racing has been cut in favor of solely simulcasting, the bingo machines that provided a boon have recently been the subject of raids and lawsuits.

Even without bingo machines, the course has a bit of that casino atmosphere. The drinks are inexpensive, with a sign at the entrance advertising beer for $1.99. There’s a restaurant with an extensive menu, and the course offers free Wi-Fi and sells electronic cigarettes. As in a casino, the course has plenty of amenities to keep people betting. But the draw doesn’t seem to be enough, Keefer said.

The course has looked for other sources of revenue, even adding a driving range on the vast property a few years ago, but it isn’t enough, Keefer said. Without an extra form of revenue, the purse for the winners of the horse races remains well below what many greyhound tracks can pay. The dogs who run are often greyhounds that couldn’t cut it at Southland in West Memphis, Ark., or other courses.

“This track is in kind of a survival mode,” Keefer said, “just trying to hang on in the hopes that something happens.”

Retired racing greyhounds in Birmingham find second careers as pets

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This article originally appeared on on July 27, 2014.


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Creb was born with only one eye, but that hasn’t held him back from one successful career and another promising one. In his first career, he was an athlete. In his second, he’s sure to make people smile.

Creb, of course, is a greyhound.

He’s a retired racing dog from the Birmingham Race Course, and now he stays at the Alabama Greyhound Rescue and Adoption Center, or Oh My Greyhounds, on the course property. Soon, though, he’ll make the move to Virginia, where he’ll become a therapy dog. That’s a job where he’s sure to thrive, because he certainly doesn’t shy away from attention.

Creb is one of more than a thousand dogs a year that go through the adoption center at the Birmingham Race Course. The staff at the center, a nonprofit, say retired racing greyhounds — and the occasional rescues they bring in — are finding more and more homes on couches after their careers on the track end.

“They’re very lazy and they adjust to home life and pet life just amazingly,” said Melanie Cleveland, the center’s director.

Large and lazy

Oh My Greyhounds is a nonprofit that took over the adoption program in 2009. The course has been adopting out the dogs since greyhound racing first came to Birmingham in 1992.

The adoption group places about 1,400 dogs a year with families. About 400 of those are here in the Birmingham area, Cleveland said, and the rest are taken by truck to other parts of the U.S. and up into Canada. Their first truck, a big transport truck, ran its last mile in October. The new one, a Ford E-450 box truck that looks like a package delivery truck, will make its first run next week.

Cleveland said she’s seen an increase lately in demand for greyhounds as pets.

“Adopting a greyhound is becoming a lot more popular as word gets out and people are meeting a lot more greyhounds,” she said. “20 years ago you never saw anyone just out in the real world that had a greyhound or had ever really seen one in person.”

The reason, she said, is because greyhounds make good pets. While they’re known for being able to run, and they can hit 45 miles per hour, they don’t like to run for long.

“You might get 30-45 seconds of a dog running and then they decide they’re done,” she said.

The dogs, she said, are pretty lazy once they get into a home. They’re more likely to lounge on the couch — and take up half of it — than run around all day.

The center spays and neuters the dogs before they’re adopted out and makes sure they’re up to date on their vaccinations. They also find out how the dogs do in situations they might face in homes.

Racing opponents

An orange tabby cat named Honey Cat hangs around the center and interacts with the dogs, allowing the staff to see how the hounds might get along with a housecat. They also have two other dogs onsite, named Dorothy and Toto, who test the hounds’ ability to get along with other kinds of dogs. Not all the dogs do well with others, and that’s information the staff can tell prospective families before they’re adopted out.

The adoption program in Birmingham is a sign of changes the industry has made in the past few decades, said Kip Keefer, the executive director of the Birmingham Racing Commission.

Animal rights groups often oppose racing because dozens of the dogs are put in enclosed kennels in conditions often far below what a dog would get at a home. In a 2010 letter to the editor in the Birmingham News, Jennifer Krebs with GREY2kUSA, a group that opposes dog racing. She wrote about the conditions of dogs packed into kennels.

In October of 2009, a greyhound tested positive for benzoylecgonine, a common marker for cocaine, after winning a race at the Birmingham course. The dog’s handler was fined and suspended for 60 days.

But Keefer said one of the major complaints about greyhound racing has been that dogs whose racing careers were over were euthanized. That hasn’t been the case in the industry for a while, he said, especially while adoption groups have found success getting the dogs into homes.

“The feel-good story is the fact that greyhound adoption is an absolute must now and a huge part of what we do,” he said. “Me, personally, as an animal lover, I wouldn’t be in an industry with that kind of a track record.”

‘They need a home’

Jennifer Boswell, who works at the center, said the racing kennels take better care of the dogs than many people think. Dogs that suffer broken legs during their racing careers are often treated at the adoption center and then promptly adopted out, she said.

“They need a place, they need a home, they need whatever, they come to us,” Boswell said.

While greyhounds are becoming more popular as pets, though, almost all of the dogs occupying couches are still veterans of the track. Cleveland said there are few breeders that raise the dogs not for racing, and those dogs are mostly for show. Some greyhound puppies are adopted out when they come from unexpected litters, because of the expense of tracing parentage for the race dogs. Those litters are very rare, though, maybe one or two nationwide a year, she said.

“Most all the ones that you’ll see are retired race dogs,” she said.

At Oh My Greyhounds, Cleveland said they’ll see a few families about adopting greyhounds each day, maybe as many as 10 families on a Saturday. The center is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is located on the grounds at the Birmingham Race Course off John Rogers Drive.

About 1,400 dogs a year are adopted from the center. Of those, about 300 are adopted locally.

“When they retire here at Birmingham, they come to us, and they find a home,” Boswell said.