95-year old Sarasota Kennel Club dog track demolished for redevelopment
The Sarasota Dog Track right before its demolition. Photo taken on floppy disc by Chloe Rusek.

95-year old Sarasota Kennel Club dog track demolished for redevelopment

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Written by Chloe Rusek and Riley Bucklin

The Sarasota Kennel Club opened in 1929 and has stood as one of the oldest dog tracks in the United States. It has been managed by the Collins family since the 1940s. The track hosted greyhound racing six days a week and included dining areas, restaurants and concession stands. After years of being abandoned due to Florida’s law which banned dog racing in 2018, the site has now been demolished for future redevelopment. 

What exactly will take the club’s place is unknown. The site is currently owned by Baird Inc. of Sarasota. Baird’s purchase of the property took place in May 2023 for a total of $9.5 million. “With the imminent demolition, the ownership is committed to exploring the highest and best use options for the property, considering the evolving needs and dynamics of the community,” the company stated in a press release about the property. “Baird has made the decision to demolish the aging infrastructure to make way for a modern, purposeful redevelopment.”

The sale took place after the Collins family’s original plan to sell the site to North Carolina-based real estate development company Aventon Holdings fell through. Aventon Holdings had originally sought to use the space to create a 372-unit apartment complex, which was challenged by the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. 

In 1931, Florida became the first state to authorize greyhound racing, and holders of dog track licenses were required to host at least 100 races each year. The Sarasota Kennel Club has been managed by the Collins family for three generations, purchased in 1944 by Jerry Collins at an auction for $5,000. Though the racetrack officially ceased operations in 2019, business regulations from the government have changed throughout the years, which included permitting dog racing to only run for four months of the year. 

“Because all the tracks could only run four months out of the year, St. Petersburg would run in the winter, we would run in the summer and Tampa would run in the fall,” Jack Collins Jr. reminisced in an interview with Business Observer. Wagers on a typical Saturday would reach up to $500,000, with the track receiving 20 percent of the bets for profit. In the 1980s, tracks would bring in $50 million a year during their four-month seasons. Despite being such a lucrative business in Florida, the law ending the industry won ballot support from 69 percent of Florida voters

Though out of operation, the Sarasota Kennel Club location was frequented by many urban explorers in Sarasota during its years of abandonment. 

“It was eerie, but really cool,” one urban explorer, who requested to keep their name withheld, told the Catalyst. “I went at night and the moon wasn’t very bright, so seeing something so large and dark tower over me made it seem like I was exploring something foreign but totally unique to Sarasota. The glass and trash on the floor was something to look out for, but we kept finding little toys left by other visitors that made the visit really charming.”

“I remember we went some night after a Wall, or something like that, and it was too dark to really explore properly, so we left,” another explorer commented. “I remember thinking, ‘I’ve gotta come back here again,’ and now it’s gone. I’m honestly really sad.”

The dog track as it was in March 2015. Photo taken by Richard Clapp.

The Catalyst also spoke to Pavel Rusek, a local Sarasota resident and father of reporter Chloe Rusek, who recalled the days when the dog track was operational. “It was a fun thing to do. I met some cool people, had a few drinks and even won five hundred dollars,” Rusek said, explaining that being there almost felt unreal. “I felt like I was in a movie because I had only seen it in films.”

Although dog racing has historically faced intense backlash due to mistreatment of the animals as well as other concerns, back in its prime the track was a hangout hotspot for Sarasota residents. “It was always really busy when I went,” Rusek elaborated. “The dogs were so big, pretty and fast.”

When asked about the recent demolition of the track and the plans for the land where it once stood, Rusek voiced his opinion about what should be done with the parking spaces and the large plot of grass in place of the old building. “I wish it were still there to be honest. They always have to come in and bulldoze everything,” he said. “They should turn it into a big dog park, since everyone was so mad about the racing, instead of selling it to another company to build another apartment complex or condos.”

Traci Rusek, who is Pavel’s wife and Chloe’s mother, offered another perspective. “They used to have a kennel off of Verna road where I believe the retired race dogs would be housed and rehomed,” she said, later talking about the process of rehoming a retired race dog as her mother had adopted one while the track was still active. “The interview process to get a dog was very extensive, which showed they cared about the dogs getting a good home.”

Even though the dogs were removed from the track, it seemed that they still retained their racetrack training. “One time I was walking the greyhound my mom had adopted from the track. It got off the leash and was off like a bullet and I couldn’t catch it. He ran off and picked up a neighbor’s tiny dog because he thought it was one of the rabbits that they would chase on the track,” she laughed, adding that the little dog was unharmed.

As the dust settles and the echoes of barking fade into the silence of demolition rubble, what remains is not just the physical debris of the building itself, but memories across generations of the battle for animal rights and party nights alike.

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