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Birmingham Race Course ends live greyhound racing

Alabama no longer has a venue for live greyhound racing.

The Birmingham Race Course is discontinuing the sport and will rely on simulcasting when it eventually reopens.

Kip Keefer, executive director of the Birmingham Racing Commission, said the decision was made Friday by Lewis Benefield, COO of the Race Course. Receipts in recent years from live greyhound racing have become “embarrassingly low,” Keefer said, with most of the track revenue coming from simulcasting to other tracks.

“It was mostly a financial decision,” Keefer said. “Revenues have lagged. It’s not a product that was supporting itself.”

The Race Course shut down live racing in March as part of the coronavirus pandemic measures that have brought large portions of commercial activity to a halt. But Keefer said track management believes that while the course is not in a financial position to continue in the near term, it eventually wants to bring live dog racing back – and even horse racing.

“What they’re talking about is not a permanent cessation of racing,” he said. “It will be a considerable task to get everything back up and running, but they hope to do so.”

Dog racing has been declining in popularity nationally as a sport in recent years. While it remains legal in 10 states, it now takes place live in only five. West Virginia has two dog tracks, Iowa and Texas have one each. Florida has active tracks but a constitutional amendment is set to phase out commercial greyhound racing by 2021. The Arkansas Greyhound Kennel Association looks to phase out racing by 2023.

Animal Wellness Action, an animal rights organization, hailed the decision. The group’s executive director, Marty Irby, a native Alabamian, said he was “elated to see this archaic and abusive enterprise cross the finish line in my home state for good.”

“Most tracks don’t make money, but gambling interests that own the tracks are being obligated by the states to subsidize the operations and to require that the tracks run dogs even when it’s a money-loser,” Irby said.

In the short term, the Birmingham Race Course will be seeing to the disposition of around 400 to 450 greyhounds. Approximately 150 dogs have already left the Race Course’s kennels for other tracks. The Birmingham Race Course has an adoption program with connections around the nation, Keefer said. The operation placed about 450 dogs in new homes last year; now, it has that same goal in a short period of time. Many dogs are placed with convalescent homes, service organizations, and other destinations.

“It’s a little bit of a daunting task, but they’ve got the staff and resources to do it,” he said. “There’s a lot of demand in Canada and New England.”

Birmingham Race Course looks to reopen in May if coronavirus directives lift with the end of Alabama’s Stay at Home order April 30.

The track opened in March 1987 as the Birmingham Turf Club, an $85 million facility on 7,000 acres for thoroughbred horse racing. The city and the region had high hopes for the Turf Club, with eventual designs on an entertainment complex. But the large crowds envisioned by its backers didn’t materialize, and within a year, the operators filed for bankruptcy. The course was eventually bought by Milton McGregor in 1992, and his family has continued to operate it after his death in 2018.

In 1992, a referendum allowed greyhound races at the track. Horse racing ended at the venue in June 1995.

Keefer said the end of live racing, whether temporary or permanent, is a sad time.

“It’s sad to think that in October 1992 when we ran the first-ever greyhound racing there, there were 14,000 people on hand,” he said. “I don’t like it for the loyal fans. Right to the end just before the shutdown, you could walk onto the racing floor up in the clubhouse and see the same couple of hundred die-hards. They wouldn’t have missed a race for the world.”

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