Massachusetts voters will soon decide whether greyhound racing should continue there, though the real question might be whether the once-popular sport dies a quick death or a slow one.
Nationwide, the legions of blue-collar fans the industry has relied on have been lured away by casinos, lotteries, online gambling and other forms of betting.
Track owners fighting the proposed ban fiercely oppose claims that the dogs are mistreated.
But animal-welfare issues aside, others in greyhound racing concede a cultural shift away from the sport.
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“It's certainly changing,” said Gary Guccione, executive director of the National Greyhound Association. “It has downsized in recent years. We've seen a decrease in the number of tracks and dogs being bred.”
In the 1980s there were more than 50,000 greyhounds bred each year to race at about 60 tracks nationwide, Guccione said. This year, the number of dogs will drop to under 20,000, and the number of tracks has been cut almost in half.
Since the end of 2004 alone, 13 U.S. tracks have closed or ended live dog racing, according to the Committee to Protect Dogs, which is leading the campaign for the Massachusetts ban. It has raised nearly $400,000 since January 2007, nearly 10 times as much as opponents of the ban have raised.
Fans still come to sit at tables in front of TV monitors at Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere, one of the state's two dog tracks. Live racing won't resume until the spring, but fans can still wager on races elsewhere via simulcast.
It's a far cry from the 22,607 fans who filled Wonderland on May 16, 1945, when the track set its single performance attendance record – or the day in June 1939 when 1,500 people packed a dinner at Boston's Copley Plaza to honor Rural Rube, who had just won 19 races in a single season.
If the ban passes, Massachusetts will join seven states that already ban live greyhound racing: Idaho, Maine, North Carolina, Nevada, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Gary Temple, general manager of Raynham Greyhound Park in Raynham, is leading the opposition to the ballot question. He calls backers “zealots” who mislead the public about track conditions and the treatment of dogs.
“I would never allow an animal to be mistreated here,” he said. “There's a lot of passion and love that these trainers give their dogs. They are family members.”