Hard Times at Twin River

greyhounds and the future of Rhode Island gambling

by by Emma Whitford

Until August 8, Twin River greyhound racetrack and casino in Lincoln, Rhode Island was riding the tail end of a tradition brought to the United States from England. In the mid-1800s, officers in the American West practiced coursing, a sport in which two greyhounds chased a live rabbit across a finish line. The popularity of the sport skyrocketed with the introduction of gambling to racetracks in the mid-1920s. However, since greyhound racing’s peak in popularity in 1992, national racetrack revenue has nearly halved and many racetracks have closed their doors. The end of racing in Rhode Island would mark a continuation in the national trend. The current economy has made many states anxious to hold on to their share of racetrack gambling revenue by any means necessary—even if this means allowing casinos free reign to cut racing when it is no longer deemed profitable. However, the issue is extremely complicated. Many state legislators believe that casinos can only bail themselves out of debt and continue contributing to the state by ending racing. Other legislators believe that racing should be maintained to save jobs and income tax revenue. Kennel owners support continued racing because their livelihoods depend on a market for race-ready greyhounds. Animal rights groups oppose racing on the grounds that it is inhumane. The only hope for the sport is to prove that there is more to be lost in ending racing than in maintaining it.

The players
The Rhode Island Greyhound Owner’s Association (RIGOA) is currently fighting every attempt made by Twin River to end the contract that keeps Rhode Island kennels and dog owners in business. When greyhound racing was established at Twin River in 1977, it was the only attraction at the venue. Live races drew crowds from across the state, and total annual wagers were high. However, after a peak in 1988 of $165 million, wagers began to decline significantly and Twin River began pushing to install
video lottery terminals (VLTs) to compensate for losses. The General Assembly of Rhode Island conditioned that if the park installed slot machines, they would also have to maintain the racing program. This meant secured jobs for racetrack employees. Now, if Twin River gets its way, greyhound racing at Twin River may soon be curtailed in full and nearly 30 full and part-time positions will be eliminated.

Where the money goes
Pari-mutuel betting arose in the 1930s as an attempt to increase the appeal of casinos and racetracks nationwide. It ensures that a certain percentage of wagers taken in at a facility such as Twin River are allocated to the state. Another percentage goes to facility owners, and another, in the case of Rhode Island, to RIGOA and kennel owners. Starting in 1992, 10 percent of the VLT annual income was allocated to kennel owners in an effort to compensate for the dip in greyhound race attendance. This percentage translated to $1.5 million for the dog owners in 1993, but skyrocketed
to $8 million by 2000. As VLT income increased, and race attendance continued to decline, the state began to target the RIGOA subsidy as unwarranted. Finding itself deep in debt in 2008, Twin River investors complained that the cost of dog racing was an unnecessary burden. Twin River’s debt continued to increase through June 2009, when it reached $500 million due to attempted facility expansion. The company was forced to file for bankruptcy. Soon afterward, Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri expressed his support of a ban on greyhound racing, arguing that it would help save the state’s third largest source of income—VLT revenue. Why should money be allocated to dogs, he argued, when the state government is scrambling to make ends meet?

The dog enthusiasts make a case
The National Humane Society, a nonprofit that advocates the abolishment of greyhound racing, understands that conflicting financial interests drive the legislative battle over racing in Rhode Island. However, it has seized the opportunity of political attention to make its own case: that greyhound racing is a cruel and inhumane pastime. The Humane Society draws special attention to the surplus breeding practices characteristic of greyhound kennels, maintained in an effort to breed dogs ideal for racing. Those that aren’t fit for the track may be euthanized due to their lack of economic potential. Tens of thousands of greyhounds are killed annually, including puppies deemed inadequate for racing and retirees who aren’t rescued from shelters and placement facilities. On its website, the Humane Society states that “the expansion of gaming at dog tracks may improve some tracks’ financial problems, but it will definitely perpetuate the misery and ultimate destruction of healthy, young, and adoptable grey-

June Bazar, a Twin River employee in charge of finding homes for retired greyhounds, is both a greyhound lover and racing enthusiast. In a recent interview she balked at the use of the term “rescue facility” and explained that she is in charge of “placing” greyhounds, not rescuing them. She explained that greyhounds are born to run, love to run, and therefore
don’t need to be rescued from anything. She even insisted that her greyhounds are “treated better than some people treat their children or elderly parents.”

A few minutes into our interview, June excused herself to take a call from a potential adopter. She gushed over the dog in question: “Just wait ‘til you get down here. You’ll fall in love with him!” But when asked if she could speak to the future of racing at Twin River, the change in her mood was palpable. “I don’t speak to those issues,” she said bluntly. “We don’t know anything yet. Try back next week.”

Going against the tide
In late June, despite public outcry from humane societies and the governor’s desire to ban racing, the General Assembly voted to increase the minimum number of greyhound racing days in Rhode Island from 125-200. According to State Senator Frank Ciccone, who sponsored a bill to sustain greyhound racing in the state, Rhode Island’s priority in the current economy is to save as many industry jobs as possible. “This state cannot afford to lose any more jobs or income-tax revenue,” he argued. Rhode Island has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, bordering on 14 percent.

RIGOA, which supports Ciccone’s bill, also argues that cutting out greyhound racing will result in a significant drop in VLT revenue because fewer people will be drawn to the track. RIGOA also foresees lost income taxes from the kennel workers, judges, pari-mutuel clerks, concessionaries, and security staff employed by the track, who would be at risk of losing their jobs. RIGOA says this, in combination with the assumed decline in casino attendance, adds up to $7.5 million in total losses for the state government. RIGOA points out that this figure is much steeper than the current cost of racing.

A not-so-final decision
Despite attempts made by RIGOA and the General Assembly to argue for the validity—even necessity—of continued racing in Rhode Island, Carcieri vetoed the bill to extend racing days, bringing greyhound racing to an abrupt halt on August 8. Although the suspension does not affect the $9 million in wager percentages due to RIGOA this year, it immediately cuts out the track operating costs borne by Twin River.

The General Assembly hopes to override the Governor’s veto this month. However, if it succeeds, Twin River will continue its appeal to a federal bankruptcy judge to void their current contract with RIGOA. In its stead, Twin River hopes to enter into a cheaper contract, or even build its own kennel. This move would break all ties between Twin River and RIGOA. The casino would also be able to at least 18 full-time and nine part-time positions, and reduce the salaries of another 22 Twin River employees connected to the track. The fate of Rhode Island’s racing greyhounds will remain undecided, regardless of the general assembly’s final vote, until the dispute between the owners of Twin River and the RIGOA is settled. Representatives of both Twin River and RIGOA stated this week in court that a decision should be finalized by November 17, the next time state bankruptcy court is expected to hear motions on the case. Until then, thestadium at Twin River will stand empty.

Senator Ciccone believes that a permanent end to racing in Rhode Island would mean not only the loss of state jobs and revenue, but also the death of a long-standing custom. “This state has a dwindling number of traditions, Del’s Lemonade and greyhound racing among them. Here’s one of the last ones, and we’re going to get rid of it because Twin River wants to use the money [to bail itself out].” 

As racetracks close across the country, most recently in neighboring Massachusetts, it seems clear that the tide of history is moving away from canine live-action gambling. VLT gambling, which requires comparatively little maintenance and no professional management, has proven to be a more reliable source of revenue for casinos in the poor economy. When budgets run low, the monetary potential of a practice carries more political weight than its legacy.
EMMA WHITFORD B’12 wishes she could throw the dogs
a bone.