The COVID-19 pandemic is known for being fatal mostly to those who were in poor health before they were infected.
One of the latest victims of the virus would certainly fit that description, even though the victim is not a person, but a well-known institution.
The Birmingham Race Course, which began in 1987 as a Thoroughbred racing facility and which added greyhound racing in 1992, has run its last live race. The announcement came on April 22 from Kip Keefer, the head of the Birmingham Racing Commission, after he found out from track owners.
Keefer and the ownership group — mainly members of the family of the late Milton McGregor, the flamboyant promoter who bought the track in 1992 — have not responded to requests for comment by BirminghamWatch. However, Keefer did speak with Trussville journalist Gary Lloyd about the end of live racing.
“It’s just unfortunate,” Keefer told Lloyd. “A perfect storm of circumstances is bringing it to an end.” Keefer added that he had no part in the decision to stop live races; a general manager of the track in the 1990s, Keefer’s role is now with the city government agency that oversees BRC.
The track has been closed since the pandemic prompted Gov. Kay Ivey to order non-essential businesses to shut their doors. But the outbreak was merely the proverbial last straw, as several factors have contributed to the decline of wagering on live races at the course. The total betting handle recently on some individual races did not even surpass $1,000 — all wagers from win, place and show plus big-payoff exotic wagers such as trifectas and superfectas.
The end of live racing is the latest step, if not the last, in the downfall of the facility, which was built with much fanfare as a major tourist attraction that would draw gamblers from Georgia and Tennessee as well as Alabama.
But the track stumbled right out of the starting gate, losing money ever since racing began. Originally called the Birmingham Turf Club, the track drew more than 13,000 fans on opening night, March 3, 1987, but only a fraction of that afterward. The facility went bankrupt and closed after a year, was then sold to Delaware North Companies and reopened as the Birmingham Race Course in 1989, and shuttered again in 1991. McGregor, who also owned Victoryland dog track near Montgomery, bought the course the following year and successfully lobbied to allow greyhounds to race. For three years, horses and dogs ran in alternating races, but live horse racing was dropped in 1995.
Over the years, McGregor — and after his death in 2018, his heirs — tried many ways to bolster revenue and attendance at the track, mostly to no avail. Simulcast wagering on races from other tracks continued until last month’s closure and would be allowed to resume if the track reopens when COVID-19 restrictions end. In the last decade, a scheme to use computer terminals for an “electronic sweepstakes” entered by purchasing time for internet access was quickly shot down by the courts as illegal.
The race course has also hosted a nightclub, boxing matches, and even the latest incarnation of the Alabama State Fair. A golf driving range was installed on a vacant patch of land near the grandstand, and for a time last year the sprawling parking lot served as a storage area for hundreds of cars awaiting shipment to dealers.
The latest effort to rejuvenate the facility came with the installation of historical racing machines — outwardly similar to video slot machines, but with the outcome of bets determined by results from randomly selected past races. Since the outcomes were based on pari-mutuel wagering in horse races, and because identical machines are in used by tracks in Kentucky (including Churchill Downs) and elsewhere, the devices passed legal scrutiny at BRC. More than 300 historical racing machines were installed and open 24 hours a day and were still in use when the COVID-19 shutdown occurred.
Now, the facility is a shell of its former self. The paddock where horses were saddled for races has stood vacant for years. Much of the grandstand has been closed to spectators, with simulcast wagering confined to the former clubhouse level. On the former horse racing track surface, weeds grow in abundance. The huge old tote board, which once featured a video screen and odds and payouts for all races, now looms behind the dog course in tatters. Its replacement stands near the dog track’s finish line and resembles a high school football scoreboard more than anything else.
Birmingham Race Course has faced pressures from many other directions, most notably the spread of casinos throughout the country, and particularly in adjacent Mississippi. Casinos have affected the entire horse and dog racing industries, but especially dogs. Many horse tracks were able to adapt by adding electronic machine gaming or full-fledged casinos with table games like blackjack and roulette, becoming “racinos,” but only a few dog tracks were able to do the same.
Political action groups have also put pressure on states to outlaw greyhound racing. Grey2K USA, the largest group seeking to end dog racing because of injuries greyhounds have suffered on the tracks, was first successful in getting the sport outlawed in New England States. Last year the organization led a referendum to force tracks in Florida — for years, the home of most of the nation’s dog racing — to stop live races by the end of 2021.
Keefer says the animal-rights group has played fast and loose with what he sees as the facts. “[T]he American greyhound racing industry did not do a good job of telling their side of the story. The prevarication and sensationalism of cruelty to the dogs resonated much more effectively than what was perceived as greedy track owners. The allegation that greyhounds are mistreated is absurd. These are well conditioned, extraordinary athletes. If they are being abused in any way, they could not possibly perform at the remarkable levels exhibited day in and day out,” he said to Lloyd.
With the end of live racing at BRC, only four greyhound tracks in the U.S. still run races, and all of them are attached to casinos. (All are temporarily closed because of the pandemic.) Southland Park in West Memphis, Arkansas, historically one of the top dog tracks in the country, added casino gaming several years ago and has agreed to phase out live racing by 2022. West Virginia may end subsidies of race purses by the casinos at its two tracks, which could bring about the end of racing there. Similar subsidies paid by two Iowa casinos to a track in Dubuque are slated to end in 2022 as well.
And Alabama’s three other licensed dog tracks — Victoryland, Mobile Greyhound Park and Greenetrack in Eutaw — did away with live racing in the past few years. Victoryland has its electronic bingo machines again, after they were removed by the state twice in contentious legal battles. Greenetrack has similar machines, while Mobile has simulcast betting only; the track is now majority owned by the gaming division of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.
That’s not to say that Birmingham Race Course owners have given up. Keefer told Lloyd that the owners still hope to resume not only live greyhound racing, but horses as well. But the prospects of that plan succeeding are, in racing parlance, a longshot at best — particularly if the Poarch Creeks have their way.
The tribe is lobbying the Alabama Legislature to allow it to have a monopoly on almost all legal gambling in the state, which would force BRC and the other Alabama tracks completely out of business. The Poarch Creeks last year proposed a plan called “Winning for Alabama” that would allow the tribe to convert its three electronic-gaming facilities to what federal law refers to as Class III gaming. The classification allows table games and the same slot machines found in Mississippi, Nevada and most other states, instead of the Class II status they now have which allows only machines that determine outcomes based on millions of computerized bingo games played at high speed. The proposal also seeks permission to build a new casino in Birmingham and another in northern Alabama. The tribe promises over $1 billion in revenue flowing to state coffers in various ways.
In return, the compact that the tribe wants the state to sign would give the Poarch Creeks nearly exclusive rights to all gambling in Alabama, except for a lottery operated by the state (which the tribe promised to support).
The proposal is opposed by a group headed by former state Sen. Gerald Dial. Bills were filed in this year’s regular session of the state Legislature in support of the plan, but the movement lost steam when pandemic fears exploded, and legislative leaders focused solely on the state budgets. Additionally, the tribe’s PCI Gaming subsidiary faces the big task of reopening its facilities in Atmore, Wetumpka and suburban Montgomery when Gov. Ivey allows; all are currently closed because of the pandemic.
If the tribe revives its plan once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, there may be no other competitive gaming outlets still around in the state to worry about. The outbreak may kill the Birmingham Race Course for good, along with what’s left of the other tracks.
For now, track officials are concerned with what happens to the dogs that regularly raced locally. Most will be adopted out by Alabama Greyhound Adoption Center, an agency that specializes in placing retired greyhounds in loving hands. The group has been cataloging all of the racing dogs at Birmingham ever since the track announced the end of racing. Keefer said a few dogs may be good enough to move on to Southland or other tracks, but with the uncertain future of those facilities, kennel owners may opt to give their top dogs away as well.