As a lifelong aficionado of dog and horse racing, I have always tried to incorporate visits to racetracks into my travels, and in recent years, I’ve been able to catch the races and soak up the atmosphere at a number of tracks I’d never before visited. By any objective measure, the sports of dog and horse racing are in decline although they do retain strong pockets of support. Fortunately, I was able to visit THREE of those strong pockets of support this summer.
In late May and early June, I spent nearly two weeks in the beautiful Gulf Coast area between Biloxi, Mississippi and Panama City, Florida. In that area, there are three lesser-known greyhound tracks, which I’ve never seen simulcast but I know about through seeing their results posted at trackinfo.com. Let’s take a look at each one…
EBRO GREYHOUND PARK
Ebro (pronounced EE-bro) Greyhound Park is located about 20 minutes north of Panama City, Florida. There’s no sign on the property which you can see from the highway, so it pretty much caters to locals who already know it’s there. I attended two weeknight racing cards and was pleasantly surprised to see that Ebro is a thriving, family-oriented place. Also, unlike some central and south Florida tracks where the dog track exists merely to keep the license needed for a poker room, at Ebro the dogs were the central activity and more people were following the races than playing poker. Most of the audience consisted of families with young children, including many young mothers. I got to chatting with the folks around me, and the kids were as into the races as the adults, commenting on the various dogs in the next race, giving their parents wagering advice, and going down to the rail to see the pre-race parade of the greyhounds. The parents were having a relaxing evening after a hard day/week at work, and the kids clearly enjoyed being here. How refreshing to see greyhound racing as a fun family outing—-Mary Anne and I attended a county rodeo in Kansas the summer previous, and Ebro had a similar feel to that. Families coming out together for an evening, and everyone enjoying it on his or her own level.
The quality of the races was high, the trackside food was good on a track-food level and reasonably priced (as was the beer), the location in the middle of the woods is beautiful, particularly at sundown. A happy, thriving dog track such as Ebro is nice to see for a lover of the sport. Many thanks to the kind lady from the program stand who opened up the gift shop for me and found me at 2X t-shirt. My only regret is that I was not able to spend a week or two in this area. I stayed on the beach (at a nice place called Beachside Resort, a few miles away from the over-crowded main beach area of Panama City) and was able to swim each morning at sunrise for an hour or two….then walking along the beach area and having oysters for lunch….then dog racing in the evening. Alas, one cannot do that permanently….work and daily life call one back….but it was great while it lasted. If I lived in this area, I’d be there at least twice a week. Hope I get back someday….The Florida Panhandle is a really under-appreciated area.
PENSACOLA GREYHOUND TRACK
Pensacola Greyhound Track is located about 15 minutes west of beautiful Pensacola, Florida, also in a lush wooded area. The left half of the facility contains the poker room, which was thriving (I attended the races on Friday night and Saturday afternoon), and the right half of the facility contains the dog racing activity. I should say at the outset that when I contacted Pensacola a few months in advance of my trip to confirm racing dates and times, I had a long and friendly phone message from a manager waiting for me the same day, and he seemed genuinely happy that I was coming! (Thank you, sir!)
Much of the wagering activity at Pensacola seems to be simulcast-related. Even once the races started (I got there a few hours early), 3/4 of the folks there were wagering on Gulfstream or on other dog tracks such as Palm Beach. In fact, in a few of the early greyhound races at Pensacola each day, there was NO payout on certain bets (such as, no win or show payout in the first place dog, no show payout on the second place dog, etc.) because no one had made those bets! Of course, seeing an “ALL” payout on an exotic bet when the longshots come in is common, but not seeing ANY money bet on a winning dog to win was new for me (note: you can see an example of that in the photo above—-there is no show payout for the first place dog and no place payout for the second place dog!). The quality of the racing was high, however. Unlike Ebro, few people went outside to watch the races although some did. There is also a small smoking area by the side entrance (you can see about 1/3 of the track from there), and a few people were always over there.
The food here was excellent, at least the seafood I had each day. My first visit, I had an oyster and shrimp plate, almost more than I could eat of hand-breaded fresh Gulf oysters and shrimp, and the next day I had 18 (!!!!) butterfly shrimp. Not those frozen things, but hand-cut and hand-butterflied and hand-breaded Gulf shrimp. A few Dos Equis or a few Stellas, delicious Gulf seafood, live dog racing in a lush wooded area in beautiful Florida….what more could one ask? The staff here were very helpful also. Not just the food service ladies in the middle (they were wonderful), but when I wanted to purchase a few souvenirs, one of the managers went back to a storage closet to find a wider variety of offerings for me to choose from than what was in the display case.
Both days I went to Pensacola there was a good crowd, and the poker room was always hopping—-they seem to have a lot of themed events and contest and clearly know their audience well. I wish them well and hope to visit again someday.
MOBILE GREYHOUND PARK
Mobile Greyhound Park is located Northwest of downtown, not far from the Tillman’s Corner area. There is no sign out at the street identifying the track, and if I were not looking for it, I would have driven past. Again, it’s aimed at locals who know where it is. As with everything on the Gulf Coast, the area is thickly wooded and deep green. MGP reminds me of the dog tracks of my youth, most of which don’t exist anymore. The closest modern equivalent would be Southland in West Memphis, Arkansas, where Mary Anne and I visited in 1996. The races I attended were matinees, and this was NOT a place one saw families. It was mostly regular players who come out every day (one would assume they work their employment schedule, if they do work, around the racing schedule). Mobile has one of the most enthusiastic audiences I’ve ever seen….these guys (and it’s mostly men, though the women are as loud as the men) are the kind who are hooting and hollering with every race….and are fairly loud in between races too. There seems to be some kind of clubhouse on the weekend, and I can’t discuss that as I went on weekdays, but on weekdays at least, there’s next to no food service and it’s not easy to get a drink. Most of the audience WERE NOT drinking beer, so they are just naturally enthusiastic folks! I got to talking with a number of dog players at MGP, and pretty much everyone there was betting every race, and they are there to gamble. There were no souvenirs, no poker room….you come out to bet the dogs and hang out with your fellow dog-players. The track itself is perhaps the sandiest I have ever seen….it looked like the grey-white sugary sand seen on a Mobile beach! The days I attended it rained each day off and on, but that never fazes anyone on the Florida/Alabama/Mississippi Gulf Coast, and it did not affect the racing, except perhaps to make the results even more volatile. There seemed to be few strategy players at Mobile, at least among the people I observed and spoke with. Stats can be a big help with dog racing, but the regulars here (again, at least the ones I observed) were not the kind who have scoped out the races in advance and worn down their pencils with notations in the program, the kind of players I see at, say, Gulf Greyhound. If you love dog racing, though, a place like Mobile is as pure as it gets. Nobody is there to play poker or for the food or to hang out with family or to impress a date–they are there to play the dogs…and the audience itself is wonderfully entertaining. If I had a smart phone, I might have recorded the audience feedback—-just imagine the casts of a Larry The Cable movie and of Sanford and Son meeting at a dog track and drinking a few Red Bulls first. That’s my kind of people! Since a lot of people are betting every race and there are not any improvements being done at the track, I’d assume Mobile Greyhound Park is doing OK. The racing was exciting, and with the rain, things were totally unpredictable. I had a great time….
Eventually, I had to come back home to Texas, though I did get to stop at one of my favorite racetracks on the way home, Delta Downs, outside Lake Charles, Louisiana. However, since I go there a few times each year and since it’s horses not dogs, we’ll not discuss that here.
I’ve now visited in person about 3/4 of the still-operating greyhound racing tracks in the United States. Who knows how many will exist in 20 years? I hope to visit most of the remaining tracks, but I doubt I can again hit THREE I’ve never before visited on ONE trip and in the same general area, give or take a few hundred miles. So this was a special occasion for me, and I am very appreciative. I work hard most of the year, getting up at 5:50 for work each morning, taking home a few hours of work each night. A summer vacation is well-deserved, and spending that time on the beautiful Gulf Coast, swimming each morning, eating Gulf oysters and shrimp each day, and hanging out at the dog track each afternoon or evening, with a program in one hand and a beer in the other, is about as much of a Life Of Riley as I could ask for….I won’t even mention that I got a lot of writing done on the trip (you’ll be seeing the chapbooks I wrote on the trip appearing over the next year).
Hope I make it back to the Alabama/Mississippi/Florida Panhandle Gulf Coast sometime….but even if I don’t, or if it takes 10 years, the memories are fresh…and all three tracks, in different ways, are vibrant places where people are enjoying greyhound racing. And that’s great to see and to experience!