In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Florida’s outdated gambling laws must be updated

Jai-alai has devolved into farce, a spectator sport with pretend spectators, a sad excuse for pari-mutuel license holders to stage the poker rooms and slot machine extravaganzas preferred by modern gamblers.

But jai-alai, at least, is harmless farce. Players aren’t forcibly pumped full of steroids or locked in pens. Players don’t keel over dead on the fronton floor. When jai-alai players become too old and slow to compete, trainers don’t shoot them in the head and toss their bodies into mass graves.

As Florida’s pari-mutuel farces go, jai-alai scores considerably less repugnant than greyhound racing.

The public has harbored a rancid perception of Florida dog racing since 2002, when police in Baldwin County, Ala., raided the 18-acre farm of Robert Leroy Rhodes and discovered a killing field, with some 2,000 dogs buried along a grisly linear grave. Rhodes admitted that he had been paid $10-a-killing by Florida greyhound track operators to dispose of dogs too slow to race. (He died in 2003 before he could be tried on animal cruelty charges.)

In 2011, a greyhound trainer at Ebro Greyhound Park near Panama City was given a five-year prison sentence after 32 of his dogs had starved to death.

Now, the Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas added some new statistical corroboration to dog racing’s unsavory image. Klas found that, on average, a dog died every three days at Florida greyhound tracks. A new state law requiring tracks to report greyhound deaths took effect on May 31, 2013. By Dec. 31, the deaths of 74 dogs had been reported by the state’s 13 greyhound tracks.

Then there was the steroids. Last month, the Florida Division of Parimutuel Wagering charged greyhound trainer James “Barney” O’Donnell with illegal possession of performance-enhancing drugs. DPW investigators said O’Donnell had “a hypodermic syringe, with the needle still attached” and two Absolut vodka bottles containing anabolic steroids at a Hialeah kennel that supplies greyhounds for South Florida dog tracks.

The O’Donnell incident might have been dismissed as isolated, except that greyhound doping scandals have erupted over the last few years in Arizona and Australia. (Not that horse racing is any more innocent of such abuse. In 2012, the New York Times discovered that steroid and pain masking drugs were so pervasive in horse racing that doping accounted for a brutal proportion of the average 24 fatal race horse injuries that occur each week at American horse tracks).

The madness here, of course, is that this disgraceful enterprise is regarded by dog track owners as an unpopular and money-losing nuisance required to meet the state’s antiquated poker and slots requirements. Betting at Florida dog tracks has fallen 67 percent since 1990. The state’s 13 dog tracks lost $35 million on their racing operations in fiscal year 2012.

There are rumors that state lawmakers will finally modernize Florida’s outdated gambling policies this session. They ought to start with an anachronism that kills one dog every three days.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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