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Race to the ballot

In revived campaign over dog tracks, battleground is Raynham

Email|Print| Text size + By Robert Preer
Globe Correspondent / January 13, 2008

M arion Penney of Brockton, who adopted her first greyhound 15 years ago, spent days last fall collecting signatures on a petition to ban dog racing in Massachusetts. "It's a terrible thing to do to these sweet, gentle, loving animals," says Penney. "I'd like to put those people out there and let them race."

George Carney, owner of Raynham Park, is one of those people. But he says the activists trying to shut down his greyhound track are misguided. Greyhounds are born to run, he says, and the race dogs are treated better than most house pets.

The battle over greyhound racing is being joined again in Massachusetts, as a proposed ban makes its way toward a November ballot vote - a redux of 2000.

Once again, Raynham Park is ground zero in the battle.

The park, a sprawling racing and entertainment complex on Route 138 about a mile from Interstate 495, is the state's busiest and most successful racetrack and gambling venue. It took in more than $121 million in wagers in 2006.

The track features live greyhound racing six days a week year-round, and simulcasting of greyhound and horse races elsewhere throughout most of the day and night. The state's other dog track, Wonderland Park in Revere, operates only half the year and takes in about a third as much money.

Both tracks would be forced to end live racing by Jan. 1, 2010, if the latest referendum outlawing greyhound racing passes and survives the expected legislative and legal challenges.

In late November, animal welfare activists cleared their main hurdle in getting the issue on the November ballot: They collected more than 100,000 signatures on a referendum petition to outlaw dog racing in the state. The pro- and anti-dog-racing forces are planning intense public relations campaigns, as well as an expected legal struggle in advance of the Nov. 4 election.

Leading the way against greyhound racing is an umbrella group called the Committee to Protect Dogs. It includes the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, and GREY2K USA.

Organized opposition to dog racing has been growing in Massachusetts in the past decade. Small groups used to picket the tracks, but in 1999 activists changed tactics and decided to use the initiative petition to try to prohibit the sport. In the 2000 campaign, activists were criticized for displaying gruesome photographs of racing dogs mistreated at places outside of Massachusetts. This year, leaders of the anti-dog-racing campaign say they will focus strictly on conditions at the two Massachusetts tracks. The principal complaints against the local tracks are injuries to dogs during races and confinement of the dogs in kennels for long periods. At Raynham Park in 2006, there were 79 reported injuries, most commonly broken bones. Dogs sometimes collide with each other or hit the wall when going around the quarter-mile oval. Supporters of dog racing point out that injuries are a part of every sport. And Carney emphasizes that at his track, "every dog is taken care of."

Critics argue that unlike other athletes, greyhounds are not given a choice about whether to race.

Raynham Selectman Donald L. MacKinnon said he disagrees with arguments of the dog racing opponents but thinks their odds of winning probably are improving. "If you put a thing on the ballot enough, it's going to happen," MacKinnon said.

Bans on greyhound racing have been enacted elsewhere in the country but never in a state in which tracks were operating. In the United States, there are 40 tracks in 12 states.

For the town of Raynham, the stakes are high. Raynham Park is the largest taxpayer and largest employer in the town of 13,000. The town receives one-quarter of 1 percent of money wagered at the track, which produces annual payments to the town treasury of around $300,000, according to town officials. The track also pays about $100,000 a year in property taxes and employs about 350 people, many of them Raynham residents.

"It's a lot of money for a small town," said McKinnon. In the petition drive last fall, dog racing foes worked hard in Southeastern Massachusetts, especially at locations near the Raynham track.

"We found the best place was the Market Basket on Route 138 in Raynham," said Anne Albanese of Taunton, who coordinated activities in Bristol County for the Committee to Protect Dogs.

Raynham Park faces difficult times even without the pressure from the animal welfare activists.

Since the early 1990s, other gambling venues - primarily the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos in Connecticut and the Twin River slots and racing complex in Rhode Island - have been taking away business. Since 2002, the amount of money bet at Raynham Park has fallen by more than a third.

A looming threat is the proposed Wampanoag casino in Middleborough. And Governor Deval Patrick's plan to introduce casino gambling includes no provision for the slot machines that Carney would like to add at Raynham Park to help boost revenue.

Carney, who also owns the Brockton Fairgrounds on Belmont Street in Brockton, has vowed to fight the dog racing petition and is lobbying on Beacon Hill for slot machines. He also said he plans to submit a proposal for a casino, either in Raynham or Brockton, if Patrick's plan for three casinos wins legislative approval.

The 2000 referendum that would have banned dog racing lost by about 2 percentage points. In 2006, the measure never came to a vote. Carney went to court, arguing the proposal was too broad, and the state Supreme Judicial Court upheld his position. Unlike the simple measure being proposed this year banning dog racing, the 2006 proposal included provisions to protect police and service dogs and to prohibit dogfighting. This year's effort also could face legal challenges.

Carney said he probably will sue to try to keep it off the ballot. If voters approve the measure, the Legislature could amend or repeal it. State Senator Michael W. Morrissey of Quincy, who cochairs the legislative committee that regulates gambling, said he doubts the Legislature would make major changes.

"The Legislature," he said, "tends to be deferential to the will of the voters."

Robert Preer can be reached at preer@globe.com.

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