When I started at what was then the Charleston Gazette in the mid-1980s, not infrequently on Fridays after work, a group of reporters and editors would head en masse to the Tri-State Greyhound track to partake of some adult beverages and bet on the greyhound races.
Having grown up in an era without computers or electronic games, with but three TV networks, and not a hint of social media, to us, evenings at the track were exciting, with seemingly barely enough time between races to study the racing form and place bets on the next race.
(Other than Lottery scratch-off tickets, racing was the only form of gambling available at the track at that time, long before the introduction of video lottery and table games.)
Most Fridays, there would be 2,000-some people in the grandstand. The Charleston Daily Mail devoted an entire page of its daily sports section to the previous day’s racing results, and listing the upcoming day’s races and picks.
Popsycle Pete, a dog with a particularly long winning streak, became something of a local celebrity.
In 1986, Tri-State set attendance (and this was paid admission, like a sporting event) and wagering records of 686,574 and $83 million.
However, Tri-State’s heyday was short-lived and by the end of the decade, attendance and wagering was waning.
In a 1989 Daily Mail article, track spokesman Don Grashel commented, “The novelty of the sport, to a degree, has worn off. A lot of people would come out and not research their bets and would lose, and these people have not returned.”
About that time, management of Tri-State and the three other state racetracks were pushing the Legislature to follow the lead of Delaware and allow the tracks to operate video slot machines in hopes of bolstering revenue and attendance.
And, as they say, the rest is history.
Today, from the gaming floor of Mardi Gras Casino, you can see hundreds of flashing racetrack video lottery machines, dozens of gaming tables, and a temporarily shuttered sportsbook, but little to indicate that there might be a greyhound track on the premises.
In 2018, according to Racing Commission figures, live greyhound wagering at Mardi Gras totaled $3.12 million — down 96 percent from its peak.
If the greyhound track were a professional sports franchise, its owners would be looking to move to another city or shut down.
Greyhound racing survives because of a roughly $15 million a year state subsidy for purse funds, and periodically, the Legislature has looked at whether the state would be better off putting that $15 million elsewhere.
In 2017, the Legislature actually passed a bill eliminating the requirement that Mardi Gras and Wheeling Island casinos conduct greyhound racing as a condition for maintaining their licenses to operate video lottery and table games, with the intention of moving most of the $15 million to plug gaps in the 2017-18 state budget.
Gov. Jim Justice, however, went to Wheeling to make a big ceremony of vetoing the bill, saying he supports greyhound racing and the 1,700 jobs it provides. (At $8,823 per job, the greyhound subsidy is a bargain compared to the $78,000 per employee bailout of the Pleasants Power Plant that the Legislature approved in July.)
From 2018 and early into 2019, with state coffers flush with revenue from natural gas pipeline construction, and with what has proved to be temporary upswings in coal production and natural gas prices, the Legislature didn’t feel compelled to revisit the issue.
Then out of the blue, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, penned an op-ed recently calling for 2020 legislation ending state support for the greyhound purse funds:
“There is little doubt that the dog racing industry could not survive in West Virginia absent the millions of dollars in state gambling revenues diverted annually to the industry,” Carmichael wrote. “The millions of dollars in state gambling revenues at stake would be much better invested in public services such as our roads and our education system.”
(Greyhound racing proponents will argue that the $15 million isn’t a subsidy, since it comes from a percentage of casino profits, not from tax dollars, but that’s just semantics. No matter what you call it, if your business, organization, or activity cannot survive without that cash infusion, it’s a subsidy.)
What was most interesting was that officers with Grey2K USA, a humane organization fighting for elimination of greyhound racing nationally, seemed to be tipped off that the op-ed was coming — and probably with good reason.
In a stroke of genius, when Grey2K went looking for state lobbyists to represent the organization going into 2020, they didn’t go in the direction of hiring lobbyists who represent the ASPCA or other humane groups.
Grey2K’s lobbyists are Conrad Lucas, former chairman of the state Republican Party, and Richie Heath, former chief counsel to Senate presidents Bill Cole and Carmichael. Talk about having a foot up in getting the attention of Senate leadership.
Grey2K is flush from a major victory in Florida in 2018, where voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to eliminate greyhound racing in that state by the end of next year. That will shrink the number of greyhound tracks still operating in the U.S. from 17 to six.
Grey2K executive director Carey Theil has said the organization will be turning its focus and significant resources to West Virginia in 2020 for what he called an “unprecedented lobbying campaign.”
Carmichael often talks about not wanting West Virginia to be an “outlier” on various issues, and I suspect he doesn’t want to look like a rube by being the last state where greyhound racing is legal — similar to when Louisiana was the last state that had not outlawed cockfighting.
However, the primary motivation for going after greyhound racing is the same as it was in 2017, going after that $15 million pile of cash.
It’s looking more and more like the economic rocket ship ride of 2018/19 was a happy anomaly, and not the result of any real effort to build an expanded and diversified economy. Meanwhile, the legislative leadership blew through most of what was a $500 million budget surplus with such agility that you would be forgiven for mistaking them for Democrats.
There’s going to be holes to plug in the 2020-21 state budget, and that $15 million is going to look awfully attractive as a patch.
Meanwhile, the racing industry has a small but vocal cadre of supporters, so it could shape up to be one of the more colorful fights in the 2020 session.
Finally, back on Sept. 29, I made a daytrip to CLF on Cardinal trains 50 and 51 in order to partake of the last traditional dining car meals on the train (at least for the foreseeable future).
In a particularly dunderheaded move, Amtrak eliminated dining car service on all eastern long distance trains, effective Oct. 1.
Sleeping car passengers now are provided with what is being called flexible dining, consisting of continental breakfast and the choice of four pre-prepared, reheated entrees for lunch and dinner.
Coach and business class passengers, who previously could order meals in the dining car, now have to subsist on sandwiches and snacks from the café car, or whatever food they’ve brought onboard.
It’s another cost-cutting move by ex-airline executive Richard Anderson, who has yet to comprehend the differences between air and long-distance rail travel.
According to a Washington Post article, Amtrak officials contend the change is to appeal to millennials, many of whom, they insist, are uncomfortable with the 140-year-old tradition of community seating on dining cars. That, of course, sounds like a cop-out.
Having a good meal with pleasant company while the countryside rolls by has been one of the reasons why rail travel is superior to travel by air or highway.
In my travels on Amtrak, I’ve dined with travelers from the U.K., Europe, Australia and Japan, and from all walks of life, from Mennonite farmers to college professors and corporate executives.
Ironically, on my last breakfast of Railroad French Toast, I was seated with a woman from Australia, who I learned was traveling to New York City.
When I told her I was from Charleston, she responded, “What a beautiful little city with such an interesting downtown.”
As I tried to comprehend how she knew so much about a small city in America, she confided that she, too, had boarded at CHW, having spent several days visiting friends in town.
She said she was traveling by rail to see the countryside — she particularly wanted to see the New River Gorge — and because domestic airfare was exorbitantly expensive, especially given the not-so-great exchange rate for the Australian dollar.
As we entered the gorge, I pointed out the many fishing huts along the river, some of which are quite elaborate, and we pondered how they were constructed, since there are very few roads within the gorge.
Now, as I travel two weeks later, such chance meetings will more than likely be lost to flexible but anonymous dining or to standing in the café car line.