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Thursday, May 13, 2021

With the closing of the remaining Florida greyhound racing tracks at the end of 2020, the handles for greyhound racing at Wheeling Island have exploded this year.

The highlight was Wheeling’s first ever 1-million-dollar handle day during the Saturday afternoon program on Feb. 13 – $1,081,721 was bet on the 20-race card. The racetrack opened for operation in August 1976.

The handle represents the amount of money bet on races from on-track patrons and from simulcast outlets.

The first million-dollar handle day in February was no fluke as Wheeling Island has topped the million-dollar handle mark a total of 20 times this year through races May 8. The racetrack has a streak of 13 straight Saturdays exceeding a million dollars in the handle, including a record $1,384,757 on May 1.

The national single day handle record in greyhound racing history took place on March 11, 1992, when $1,457,609 was wagered at The Woodlands in Kansas.

For the five race programs from Wednesday, April 28, through Sunday, May 2, Wheeling Island handled a record $5,265,884 – an average of more than $1 million a day. During that week, two of the five days surpassed $1 million.

West Virginia Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, has been a strong advocate of greyhound racing in the state legislature and recently Weld and his wife, Alex, adopted “Ava” – a retired greyhound who has become a hit at their Wellsburg, W.Va., home and at the Capitol in Charleston.

“Over the past few years, there has been a misunderstanding in West Virginia that horse racing here was on the rise and that greyhound racing was on the decline. However, with the recent numbers we’ve seen in connection with our greyhounds, we know this isn’t true,” Weld said. “People all across the country have been enjoying greyhound racing in this state as other states have made the decision to end their racing industries.”

The increase in the handles has given revenues a boost, Weld noted.

“This significant increase in revenue has put West Virginia in a unique position – to not only ensure that the racers are cared for but that the hundreds of jobs within the industry are filled by those who want to ensure the credibility and its long-standing tradition of quality,” Weld said.

West Virginia House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, echoed Weld’s sentiments.

“The increase in revenue further proves that our local legislators were correct in our analysis that the industry remains an economic driver for the Northern Panhandle and the state,” Fluharty said. “The critics trying to shut the industry down used outright lies in order to push their agenda which was driven by out-of-state interests and money.”

Not only has Wheeling Island’s handle soared this year, the numbers at Tri-State Greyhound Park near Charleston also are on the rise.

In the first quarter 2021 (January-March), a total of $52,954,448 was bet on Wheeling Island greyhounds while $27,145,056 was wagered on Tri-State racers. The total handle for the two West Virginia tracks combined was $80,099,504 for the first quarter.

The West Virginia Annual Racing Commission Report shows the handles for each track by quarter and total for the year. Since the 2020 report has yet to be posted, the latest annual report available is from 2019.

For the first quarter of 2019, Wheeling Island handled nearly $22 million for greyhound racing compared to almost $53 million for the first three months this year – more than doubling the amount bet.

For the entire 2019 racing year, the report showed Wheeling Island handled $75 million while Tri-State did $49 million. If the 2021 pace continues, both tracks will smash their 2019 handle totals halfway through this year’s racing season.

Fluharty noted the economic benefits of the racing industry are widespread.

“As the (greyhound) industry continues to thrive in West Virginia, it will keep jobs here, keep families here and help us to rebuild the state at a time when it is desperately needed,” Fluharty said.

Wheeling Island Kennel Association President Steve Sarras praised the efforts of lawmakers from the Northern Panhandle – Senators Weld, Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio and Mike Maroney, R-Marshall and Delegates Fluharty and Erikka Storch, R-Ohio – for their racing support.

“Our lawmakers took their valuable time to visit and research the greyhound industry – they saw with their own eyes the love and care that these dogs receive daily. They saw economic value and future job growth potential for the State of West of Virginia,” Sarras said. “They didn’t buy into deceptive propaganda and saved thousands of jobs and countless tax dollars for the state. Once the restrictions (COVID-19) lift in West Virginia and across the nation, I would expect more tourism into our beautiful state to watch these beautiful greyhounds do what they love to do – RUN.”

During the 2020 West Virginia legislative session, then-Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson – whose bill to eliminate the Greyhound Breeding Development Fun was soundly defeated – and the anti-racing group Grey2K claimed greyhound racing is “an industry in decline.”

Weld took exception to their claim.

“To say this is an industry in decline, that’s simply a misnomer,” Weld said during floor debate on Carmichael’s bill.

The record amount of dollars bet on greyhound racing this year also refute Carmichael’s and Grey2K’s claim that interest in the sport is waning.

Back in 2020, Ihlenfeld saw the potential boost for greyhound racing in West Virginia with the closing of the Florida tracks.

“There aren’t many industries in our state that we control. We’re getting close to being the only game in town when it comes to this industry (greyhound racing),” Ihlenfeld said. “Instead of kicking this industry to the curb, we ought to embrace it. We ought to modernize it. We ought to make it even better and allow even more people to send money into West Virginia.”

I was introduced to greyhound racing by a friend in the late 1970s at Wheeling Downs and fell in love with the sport and the athletes immediately. Throughout the years, I have developed a deep passion for racing. In the mid 1990s, I started writing a weekly greyhound column and shortly thereafter became a writer for The Greyhound Review.

I have enjoyed watching and writing about these wonderful competitors, including All-Americans DD's Nelson, Kiowa Sweet Trey, Gene's Champion, WW Apple Jax, Greys Royalcrown, Nimby TP Jan, Hi Noon Hero, Gable Sour Cream, KB's Ruckus and Cry Case.