EBRO — Mark Hess is staring at the end of a family tradition.
When Florida voters decided in November to end greyhound racing by Jan. 1, 2021, they set in motion a fundamental change in the business the Hess family started in Washington County in 1955. Amendment 13 passed with 69 percent of the vote.
"We're going to miss it a lot," Hess said.
Ebro Greyhound Park & Poker Room will run a full — or almost full, depending on circumstances — schedule of greyhound races this year, according to Mark Hess, who shares assistant manager duties with his brother, Rick. Racing will start in May and continue through September. The current schedule calls for 93 days of racing.
But next year the family will have to consider tax implications and other aspects of keeping the greyhounds racing, Mark Hess said.
In anticipation of possibly not racing next year, this season will be a "celebration of the greyhound" at Ebro, according to Hess.
But for Hess, who remembers sitting on a greyhound at the track at age 4, and for the rest of the family, that celebration will be clouded by the knowledge that the end of live greyhound racing is coming.
"I don't think that until it actually happens will it really set in," he said.
Even after the end of live greyhound racing, the Ebro facility will remain open with its other gaming opportunities: TV broadcasts of greyhound and horse races from outside Florida and various iterations of poker.
"Of course, we're always looking for new games," Hess said.
But, as with greyhound racing, expanding gaming opportunities at Ebro is now subject to the provisions of a new state constitutional amendment.
In addition to approving Amendment 13, voters also passed Amendment 3, which gives voters, rather than the Legislature, the right to decide whether a new casino can open in the state. Under the amendment, anyone wanting to establish a casino would have to get thousands of signatures to get the issue on a ballot for a vote. That would make it difficult for greyhound tracks facing the end of racing to expand their offerings.
"It's a risky route," Hess said.
Beyond the Hess family, the Ebro Greyhound Park & Poker Room has 250 employees for whom Hess said the family will work to find jobs as the greyhound track shuts down.
And as far as the dogs are concerned, Ebro has long been working with adoption agencies to find homes for them after their racing careers have ended. That commitment will continue, Hess said, even after racing ends at Ebro.
"If anybody leaves their greyhounds here, we'll find homes for them," he said.
Meanwhile, the Pensacola Greyhound Track & Poker Room has already stopped racing, according to a recent announcement from PCI Gaming.
“The fall live greyhound racing season ended Sept. 30, 2018, with plans to resume scheduling on Jan. 18, 2019," the announcement noted, but in response to the passage of Amendment 13, "PCI Gaming made the decision to discontinue live greyhound racing at the facility. ... Poker room, simulcast and food and beverage operations continue as normal."
Affected employees were offered job placement within the company, according to the announcement, and all of the track's greyhounds were adopted.