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Poker gives dog tracks a full house

The state's relaxed rules on poker tables at parimutuels have made the game more attractive, and have revived greyhound racing in the process.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer
Published October 2, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - The numbers started dropping for the greyhound racing industry in 1988. And the hits just kept on coming.

Indian casinos, gambling boats, the Internet and a dozen other tugs at the entertainment dollar all made things worse at the track.

Paid attendance at Florida's 18 greyhound tracks plummeted from 10.2-million in 1995 to 2.8-million in 2004.

The pool of cash also started drying up. As fewer people gambled, the taxes and fees the state collected from those bets fell from $33.7-million in 1997 to $12.7-million last year.

In the past decade, greyhound tracks have cut their staffs and reduced services, and two tracks were forced to shut down.

And then the industry was dealt a new hand.

First the state allowed small-stakes poker at jai alai frontons and dog and horse tracks. And then, two years ago, the state relaxed its rules and made poker more attractive. The law eliminated a maximum pot size of $10 and increased the bets to $2, with a maximum of three raises per round.

The state went even further last year and allowed the parimutuel venues to host poker tournaments, where the payouts can reach into the thousands.

Greyhound racing, once on the verge of obscurity, was back in the game.

"We had about a dozen poker tables at first; now we're running 45," said Richard Winning, vice president of the St. Petersburg Kennel Club, which operates Derby Lane. "Poker has really increased our attendance."

Like most dog tracks, Derby Lane, which recently began its 81st season of racing, needed something new. Not only was attendance dropping, but fewer young people were coming through the turnstiles.

"We're the old game in town and have a lot of competition," Winning said. "The great thing about poker is that it's giving us something new to offer our customers."

Customers like Jim Rising.

Less than an hour after it opened Friday afternoon, the card room at Derby Lane was close to its 300-seat capacity. Low murmurs and the nervous clicking of poker chips filled the cool air.

Rising, 63, played the dogs occasionally for nearly 20 years. His focus now is Texas hold'em - five, sometimes six, days a week.

A glass of iced coffee at his side, Rising starts at noon and plays for about three hours, or until he loses more than about $40. Whichever comes first.

Derby Lane has come to life, he said. Mostly older people in the afternoon. Mostly young, hotshot players at night. "If my wife isn't feeling well," he said with a smile, "I come back at night, too."

It used to be that people playing the dogs would discover the poker room, track officials say. Now, it's often the other way around.

It's an arrangement that works well for the track, the patrons and the state, which gets 10 percent of Derby Lane's poker revenue. It even works well for tracks that don't have card rooms.

The Tampa Bay area is home to three greyhound tracks - the Sarasota Kennel Club and the Tampa Greyhound Track are the others. But only Derby Lane offers poker, even when it isn't holding greyhound races.

According to state law, a greyhound track must be running live races in order to operate a card room. But a special exemption allows Derby Lane and the Tampa track, which are owned by different companies, to share Derby Lane's card room. When Derby Lane's racing season ended in July, the track's card room stayed open because the Tampa track was running live races.

Derby Lane gives a portion of its card room proceeds to the Tampa track.

Although profits from poker remain a small slice of overall revenue at dog tracks, the numbers reflect the growing interest.

In 1997, the state received $336,000 from dog track card rooms.

Last year, its take was $1.67-million.

All of this is not good news to animal rights groups, which saw the decline of greyhound tracks as a welcome trend. With poker coming to dog racing's rescue, the fight may be even more difficult.

"Our concern is that they are tied together because tracks have to conduct a minimum number of live races," said Carey Theil, president of GREY2K USA, a national greyhound protection organization. "The track in Melbourne has expanded live racing. Not because it's profitable, but because poker is."

In many cases, Theil said, a percentage of poker room profits are set aside to subsidize the prizes offered in live racing.

But poker may be just the first step.

Some track officials say the rebound won't be complete until the parimutuels get Las Vegas style slot machines, something that's already been approved by voters in Broward County.

Not only would slot machines provide millions in revenue to the state, something Indian casinos don't do, they would help secure greyhound racing's future, said Yvonne Gurbada, secretary-treasurer of the Florida Greyhound Association. "What we're looking for is what they passed in Broward," Gurbada said. "It was a big boost to the tracks in West Virginia and Rhode Island, which have legalized gambling at parimutuels."

Winning, Derby Lane's vice president, agrees.

"Poker has helped us stay in business longer," he said. "Until we can get something better."

For now, he sees younger people at the track, attracted by poker, who might also discover greyhound racing. "The laws could change," Winning said. "But would we become just a poker palace?

"I don't think so."

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