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Ban on dog racing has stifled livelihoods of many

From kennels to suppliers, the industry is moribund in Bay State

Johnny O’Donnell stood in front of empty cages at the kennel he operates in Lynn. He has lost most of his business in the months since the state’s ban on dog racing went into effect. Johnny O’Donnell stood in front of empty cages at the kennel he operates in Lynn. He has lost most of his business in the months since the state’s ban on dog racing went into effect. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / June 1, 2010

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LYNN — For 50 years, a cacophony of high-pitched barking and low growls echoed through the squat building where as many as 100 greyhounds waited in small cages for their day at the racetrack.

Now, several months after a state law banning dog racing took effect, the cages here at the North Shore Kennel are all empty, weeds are rising around the rusting vehicles that used to transport the dogs, and dust covers the muzzles, pans, and leashes scattered about.

“This is just a lot of stuff that’s going to waste,’’ said Johnny O’Donnell, whose family has been in the dog racing business since 1975 and claims to have lost more than $1 million after retiring 81 dogs prematurely. “We’re not sure what we’re going to do with it all right now. We’re not sure what we’re going to do with this whole place.’’

O’Donnell and his family, who recently sued the state on grounds that the 2008 voter initiative that banned dog racing violated their constitutional rights, are one of 16 kennel operators in Massachusetts who have seen much of their business come to a halt since the law took effect in January. Many of them have had to move out of the state to continue their business, have gone bankrupt, or are unemployed.

The kennel operators are among hundreds of people who made their living from the dog racing industry — including trainers, judges, dog haulers, muzzle and meat vendors, ticket sellers, tellers, wait staff, maintenance workers — and many are now struggling.

“Most of these people are devastated,’’ said Linda Jensen, president of Protection of Working Animals and Handlers, which represents the dog racing industry. She estimates that about 1,300 people have lost jobs in Massachusetts as a result of the ban on dog racing, which passed after opponents claimed that the dogs were abused.

“This is the worst possible time for this to have happened,’’ Jensen said. “There just aren’t other jobs. Some don’t know anything else. They feel like they’re in another world, isolated or in purgatory.’’

The proponents of the ban question Jensen’s estimate and note that the law gave those in the industry more than a year to look for other work. They note the benefits for the dogs: In 2009, 745 greyhounds had been adopted, more than any other year, according to the State Racing Commission.

“The fact of the matter is that our economy should not be based on cruelty to dogs,’’ said Christine Dorchak, president of Grey2K USA, a Somerville-based group that has helped eliminate dog racing at 25 tracks in eight states since 2001. “No one wants to see job loss, but this has long been a dying industry.’’

She said her group sought to pass another law that would have aided the industry, but she said the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development has taken over to provide services to the newly unemployed.

Ken Messina, manager of the department’s rapid response team, said he has held employment workshops at Raynham Park and Wonderland Park in Revere, the two racetracks that until 2008 had featured dog racing.

He said the workshops offered resume assistance, interviewing skills, and information about how to collect unemployment and sign up for health insurance. But he said the workshops have been sparsely attended.

“We can’t force anyone to use the services,’’ Messina said. “I know it can be disheartening to lose a job. The reality is that we can help.’’

But those who earned a living from dog racing said they doubt they would benefit from computer classes or polishing their resume.

Carl Petricone spent 32 years as a kennel operator and once had more than 110 dogs. The 57-year-old from Saugus is now bankrupt and has been living with his sister since his business closed in December.

“I haven’t gotten over the bitterness,’’ he said, insisting that he and other kennel operators treated their dogs like they were part of the family. “I’m done. At 57, am I going to start a new career? It feels like we’re sitting behind bars for a crime we didn’t commit. But we didn’t do anything wrong!’’

Then there are those who aren’t eligible for state help, but who have also seen their business plummet.

For 26 years, Dana Mindes supplied muzzles, vitamins, leashes, medicine, and other products to those in the industry. The president of Horsemen’s Tack Inc. in Haverhill said he had to cut his payroll by one-third since sales fell by the same amount.

“It’s really tough for us to survive,’’ he said. “We’re part of the snowball effect.’’

Bob Messenger spent decades hauling greyhounds from farms in Kansas to kennels in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where state lawmakers this month banned dog racing at the remaining track in Lincoln.

His company used to transport 600 dogs a month, including 100 every other week to Massachusetts; they now haul at most 180 dogs a month, only as far east as West Virginia.

“I’m trying to keep my family alive on this business, but there’s no longer any profit,’’ he said.

Sandy O’Neil and her husband spent most of their adult lives in the industry. She trained greyhounds and he helped manage a kennel; now, she walks dogs and he’s a maintenance man.

“It’s a lot harder on the kids, and it hurts when the bills come in,’’ said O’Neil, 50, of Saugus, who adopted one of her dogs. “I don’t hold any grudges against people who wanted to save the dogs. It just seems like they couldn’t care less about the people and distorted the facts.’’

On a recent Saturday at Raynham Park, where officials say they cut about 500 jobs between those who worked on their staff and those who were affiliated through dog racing, weeds bloomed on the sandy track and small televisions featured races in Florida.

In the past year, Donna Martin, who has worked at the track for 40 years, has seen half of her fellow tellers get pink slips.

“It’s horrific,’’ she said. “It’s not the same place anymore. It’s awful on everyone.’’

After 16 years waiting tables at the track’s recently-closed dining room, Donna Kalil is the only remaining waitress, and she now gets to work at most two Saturdays a month. Even when she works, the track is often empty and tips have plunged by three-quarters.

“You can see the devastation just by pulling into the parking lot,’’ she said. “It’s like a ghost town now. You can hear echoes. It’s really sad.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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