Saturday, October 1, 2022

Track Changes: The New Palm Beach Kennel Club

The mustard-yellow sign advertising Palm Beach Kennel Club at the corner of Belvedere and Congress in West Palm Beach still features a greyhound in mid-sprint. On a walkway leading to the building, names of champion greyhounds are emblazoned onto stars, as on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Izza Champ, He’s My Man, Ozzie the Man. Inside the building and its executive offices, symbols of the muscular hound are everywhere—on paintings, sculptures, clocks.

They are everywhere, that is, except the track itself. Greyhounds have not raced at Palm Beach Kennel Club since Dec. 31, 2020, owing to the passage of Amendment 13, in 2018, which banned dog racing in Florida. But the legacy of the institution is inescapable, and to tour Palm Beach Kennel Club today is to find a once-towering institution both honoring its history and forging a new future. Part of the latter approach has meant truncating its branding to “PBKC.”

“Without stealing too much from Kentucky Fried Chicken, it’s kind of what they did,” says Patrick J. Rooney Jr., president of PBKC. “They go by KFC, but I don’t think they’ve gotten completely rid of Kentucky Fried Chicken. We’re doing the same thing.

“My approach to rebranding as PBKC is that it still has resonance with the folks here who know who we are, but it doesn’t give the false advertising that we’re still doing dog racing. I’ve had a couple family members say ‘we want it to still be Palm Beach Kennel Club,’ but … it’s like saying you’re the Palm Beach Ice Cream Factory, but you don’t have ice cream.”

In its heyday, Rooney says, PBKC was the “No. 1 tourist attraction in the county for a long time.” It opened in February 1932, attracting 4,000 seasonal residents to its first day of wagering.

“We were only open for 38 days, and they bet over a million dollars,” Rooney says. “There was no airport here. This would be like going out into the farmlands in the Glades. For folks to come from Palm Beach, it was definitely a different era. In the ‘40s, air conditioning came in, and you started to get more of the glamour.”

Over the next 88 years, some 50 million visitors entered the building’s turnstiles, wagering billions of dollars. Celebrity gamblers included Ed Sullivan, Joe DiMaggio and Leonard Nimoy. Until relatively recently, Rooney says, visitors were required to wear a jacket and tie.

But interest in greyhound racing had been declining well before the passage of Amendment 13. Rooney credits the introduction of the Florida Lottery, in 1986, and the 1988 passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which opened competitive gaming avenues on Native American reservations. The growing animal-rights movement also affected attendance.

“You weren’t going to fight the image that it’s a cruel sport, and there’s injuries, and abuse,” Rooney says. “You’re going to get bad apples, in any industry, who didn’t do things the right way. But that’s something I prided ourselves on here. We never had any instances of dogs running on Belvedere or getting loose or getting hurt that weren’t immediately addressed by our management here.”

By the ‘90s, PBKC had begun to expand and rethink its business model. In 1997 it opened its Poker Room, which, with its 64 tables, has become its prime draw. PBKC hosts tournaments and televised World Series of Poker events, and still allows simulcast wagering on horse racing and the few dog tracks still in operation (starting in 2023, only West Virginia will host greyhound racing). It is leading an effort for legalized sports betting.

Necessity being the mother of invention, PBKC has instituted new revenue and entertainment streams since 2021. National comedians, including marquee names like Andrew Dice Clay and Jim Breuer, have toured the Paddock, its chef-driven restaurant. PBKC has welcomed food trucks, barbecues, cornhole tournaments and Mutt Derbies (where, for a $20 entry fee, families can “race” their family pet) on its track. It has hosted sportscard conventions inside, and its greyhound kennels have been converted into Camp Rusty, a 24-hour doggy daycare service.

Not all of the club’s die-hards have accepted the new reality, Rooney says. “People are like, ‘when are you going to get dogs back?’ They don’t understand why it’s not allowed anymore. You almost can’t convince them it’s over.

“Things change. We’re trying to change with them.”

This article is from the September/October 2022 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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