Melbourne Greyhound Park president resigned to fate of ‘a dying industry’

Jim O’Brien admits he “wasn’t thrilled” to see Amendment 13 approved by Florida voters, nearly 70 percent of whom opted to ban greyhound races – and wagering on them – at dog tracks around the state by the end of 2020.

But based upon his knowledge of the issue as Melbourne Greyhound Park’s president and chief executive officer since 2014, O’Brien was not surprised, either.

“I don’t totally agree with it, especially the argument that the dogs were mistreated, but I could see where this was headed,” said O’Brien, Melbourne Greyhound Park’s president and chief executive officer since 2014. “So we just accept it and go on.

“It really doesn’t affect our day-to-day operations,” he added, “except we no longer offer live racing.” On-site greyhound racing wasn’t exactly a cash cow, anyway.

In fact, O’Brien said MGP actually lost money on the on-site racing – as much as $250,000 annually – but revenues from parimutuel wagering on greyhound races simulcast from Florida’s 10 other dog tracks more than covered the costs, generating roughly $500,000 annually.

By the end of 2020, Amendment 13 will eliminate those revenues, too, but MGP no longer will bear the expense of on-site racing: The facility’s final greyhound season, which featured eight races six days per week, ended in April.

“We’re done with live racing,” O’Brien said. “It’s a dying industry, anyway. It doesn’t attract a lot of young people. Only old f—- my age watch it. Most days, if we had 10 people in the grandstand, it was a lot.

“There was no profit, only an expense,” he added. “But we kept greyhound racing so we could keep our license for poker and parimutuel wagering. That’s where the money is.”

Before voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 13 last month, Florida law allowed only those greyhound tracks that ran a full schedule of live racing to also operate more lucrative poker rooms and offer parimutuel wagering on dog and horse races simulcast from other venues. (Tracks in Miami-Dade and Broward counties were permitted to also provide slot machines.)

Amendment 13 removed the live-racing requirement.

“Members of our staff were nervous about the amendment, worried that we’d lock our doors after it passed,” O’Brien said. “But as I told them: From a business standpoint, it really doesn’t impact us, except for limiting our ability to expand.

”MGP will survive and continue to be an ongoing business, and we expect our numbers to be even better in 2019,” he added. “Our Club 52 poker room does very well, and we still have the simulcast wagering. And, again, we won’t have the costs of live racing. It’s a changing world, but we’ll do fine.”

Seeing the industry’s decline, O’Brien said MGP put most of its political efforts into fighting the passage of Amendment 3, which gives voters the “exclusive right” to decide whether a new casino can open in the state.

Nearly 65 percent of voters approved the amendment, which requires those wanting to build and operate a casino to obtain hundreds of thousands of residents’ signatures to get on the ballot, then win approval at the polls.

The amendment, which was strongly endorsed by Disney and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, makes it more difficult for dog and horse tracks to expand gaming options, which includes legal betting on sports events – a wildly popular and extremely lucrative enterprise.

With support from Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, who opposed the amendment, O’Brien said track operators around the state are exploring the possibility of introducing new legislation that would allow them to expand their gambling options, preferably through a “compromise” with the Seminoles.

“We’re still in the infant stages, so I really can’t say very much,” O’Brien said. “We’re talking to the Seminole Tribe and working with Sen. Galvano to find an agreement that works for everyone.”

In the meantime, O’Brien said, MGP has changed the job descriptions of a handful of employees whose greyhound-related duties are no longer required. The individual kennels seasonally employed another 30 to 40 people at the track.

O’Brien said many of the kennels’ employees were seeking work elsewhere. “That’s something no one is talking about – the people who’ve lost their jobs,” O’Brien said. “They’re dog people, so unless they go to another track, I don’t know what they’ll do.”

Nor does O’Brien know what MGP will do with the property used for greyhound racing.

“I’m sure we’ll try to do something,” he said, “but we’re very early in the game and I don’t have all the answers right now.”


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