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It's the end of the line for greyhound racing in Massachusetts

December 14, 2009 | 11:28 am

Greyhound

RAYNHAM, Mass. — Mike Sergio and his buddies Bob Foley and Jimmy Gorham have been going to the greyhound race track here for decades. Now retired, they come a couple of times a week and not just to gamble.

"It's kind of a social thing with us," Sergio says. "We shoot the breeze, we throw money in and bet, we eat, then we divide up whatever money is left."

"When we have money left to divide up," Foley interjects with a laugh.

"It's entertainment," he adds, his voice trailing off slightly.

Greyhound racing has been a form of entertainment in Massachusetts for 75 years but not for much longer. The last card at Raynham Park is expected to be Dec. 26, and the state's other dog track, Wonderland in Revere, stopped racing earlier in the fall.

It may, in fact, be the last time greyhounds run anywhere in New England.

Activists who alleged mistreatment of dogs led an effort that resulted in Massachusetts voters banning dog racing beginning Jan. 1, 2010. Vermont and Maine also have outlawed racing. Twin River, Rhode Island's only dog track, is seeking to end racing as part of bankruptcy reorganization. New Hampshire's two tracks ended live racing earlier this year for financial reasons, and Connecticut's last greyhound track closed in 2006.

Nationally, a total of seven tracks dropped racing in 2009, and only 23 continue to run nationwide.

Mike Curran, 53, is a trainer and kennel owner who got hooked on greyhound racing more than 30 years ago, the first time his older sister took him to Wonderland. He often works 14 hours a day, caring for the dogs and getting them ready to run.

"This is all I've ever known, since I was 20 years old. It's all that I have been doing. And they just ruined my life. Now I've got to move," Curran says.

Curran is among hundreds of people who will need to find new work when racing ends. He figures he might head to Florida, one of the few states where dog racing is still going strong.

"It's heartbreaking," he says, looking down at the greyhound he holds on a leash. The muscular animal with its angular body seems to be looking with anticipation toward the track, unaware that the race he's about to run will be one of his last, in Massachusetts at least.

For now, Raynham -- with a much smaller staff -- will remain open for simulcasting, in which patrons can place bets on other dog and horse races from around the country, shown on closed-circuit TVs.

The track's politically connected owner, George Carney, has a grander plan in mind: a $165 million entertainment complex featuring slot machines, restaurants and retail stores. But that all depends on the state Legislature approving expanded gaming, something far from a safe bet in Massachusetts.

Longtime General Manager Gary Temple is nostalgic about the end of dog racing, recalling the days when there were tens of thousands of patrons and multimillion-dollar handles at the track.

"It's the only thing in America that hasn't changed with inflation," he says wistfully. "In 1937, your racing bet was $2. It's now 2009 and it's still $2. Name something that has stayed $2 and has not gone up."

But Temple concedes that dog racing was on the decline long before the voters outlawed it. He blames, in part, competition from casinos in Connecticut.

Perhaps a few hundred people, mostly older men, are at Raynham on a recent late-fall day, enjoying one of the final race cards. It's a pleasant afternoon, but few patrons sit in the outdoor grandstands. Some watch the simulcast races, while others mill about the clubhouse or sit at the bar.

The public-address system comes to life. "Greyhounds on the track for the running of the ninth race."

It's the ninth of 14 races that day. Unlike horse racing, there is no thundering around this track. You can barely hear the muzzled greyhounds as they round the oval, leaning to one side in near defiance of gravity, speeds reaching up to 35 mph.

They focus on the lure, the plastic foam rabbit attached to a moving pole that always stays a few paces ahead of the pack.

A greyhound named Carzal, wearing No. 2, wins by a couple of strides. He and the other racers are led into a large room, where their paws are cleaned and any dirt washed from their eyes. A state racing inspector will check the winner's urine, to make certain everything is on the up and up.

What will become of the animals when racing ends?

"A lot of them will run at other tracks, where the regulations aren't as good as in Massachusetts," says Curran, who bristles at the notion that any greyhound has ever been abused.

"Some will be adopted out, sent back to the farm for breeding, they'll all be taken care of."

Sergio, Foley and Gorham say they'll probably still meet at Raynham after live racing ends, still eat lunch, still shoot the breeze and maybe bet a few out-of-town races. But they won't come nearly as often.

Neither will Clifton Pierce, a retired carpet installer who liked to come to the track about three times a week, usually with $20 in his wallet to place on about six races.

"This is my enjoyment," says Pierce, "not that I win."

-- Associated Press

Photo: Catherine, a retired racing greyhound, is now a family pet after being adopted through Greyhound Pets of America.  Credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times

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