The Collins Family and the Sarasota Kennel Club
It’s hard to miss when you drive along University Parkway. The huge white building on the 50-acre property. The westward-running greyhound against the red stripe on the wall. The roar of the crowds as greyhounds charge around the track at speeds upwards of 40 mph.
Since 1929, the Sarasota Kennel Club has been a part of the Sarasota landscape, and since 1944 — when it was purchased for back taxes of $5,005 by a policeman, motorcycle stunt man, and circus owner named Jerry Collins — the Collins family name has gone hand-in-hand with it. Today, it’s run by third-generation member Jack Collins Junior, who’s been helping with the day-to-day operations since he graduated from the University of Central Florida in 1986. When his father passed away a few years back, Jack was ready to carry on the family legacy, along with the help of his brother Chris and sister Debbie.
While the Collins family has been a constant, the Sarasota Kennel Club has changed over the years. “Back in the day,” explains Jack, “it was the only legal form of gambling. This was well before the Indian casinos. We used to only run four months a year, from May to September.” When Sarasota Kennel Club ended its season, the Tampa Greyhound Track would open from September to December, then the Derby Lane Greyhound Track in St. Petersburg would run from January through April. “In its heyday, our races were a big attraction,” says Jack. “We’d pull in up to 5,000 people per day and in those four months, we’d do $60 million. These days? We have to run all year to equal those numbers.”
Today, much of their revenue comes from One-Eyed Jack’s, the state-of-the-art poker room that opened nearly a decade ago on the second floor. With 35 poker tables and plasma TVs everywhere, it’s a great place to try out the live action cash games and the single or multi-table tournaments. It’s a smoke-free environment with walk-about tellers and tableside beverage service. And if your luck is holding out and you need a pick-me-up, there’s tableside massages, too. Jack says, “It’s been a huge success. We’ve got 18-year-old people playing against 80-year-old people. We’ve got inexpensive options as well as no-limit games. There’s something for everyone.” What really draws people in is 50-cent Fridays, where hot dogs, Cokes, or beer are all 50 cents. It’s no surprise that Fridays tend to bring in two to three times as many guests as other weekdays.
Ask any regular, and they’ll tell you that much of the charm of this venue is that it has that old-school feel about it, like you’re gambling in the 1950s. But the addition of the high-tech poker room shows that they’re responding to the demands of the times. And the times are a-changing. “We’re at the point now where we either have to get bigger or get smaller,” explains Jack. The 20-year, multi-million dollar gaming compact with the Seminole tribe is coming to a head in this next legislative session, and that might change the environment. Depending on how it all shakes out, it might mean that the Collins family may bring in slot machines to raise extra revenue and enhance the compact. Another outcome might be decoupling, meaning that a venue isn’t mandated to run dogs if they have a track as well as other forms of gambling. Right now, that’s the case — the Sarasota Kennel Club has to run live dog racing from November through April, doing roughly 12 races a day. That’s over 2,000 races during their season. But they run simulcast horse racing, dog racing, and harness racing throughout the year, too.
What Jack likes most about the family business is exactly that — it’s a family. Even those who don’t share the same last name. For example, Director of Racing Tom Bowersox started working there when he was 16. Today? He’s well into his 70s. “Plenty of others have been here for more than fifty years,” says Jack. “We’re a close-knit bunch.”
One of the things Jack is proud of is how his family has partnered with and supported local businesses and nonprofit organizations for the last 70 years. His grandfather donated $1.2 million to New College in the 1970s, and they’re quite active with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the American Heart Association, Payton Wright Foundation, Sheriff’s Activities League of Sarasota County, and the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, to name just a few.
“I was born and raised here,” says Jack, “and so was my dad. The Collins family has been here nearly a century. We’re a part of this unique, beautiful community and we love it here. It’s got a terrific atmosphere, the people are great, the weather is first-rate, and the beaches can’t be beat. And during season, we have over 300 employees working here, so we get a chance to know so many of the great people who call this area their home.”
Between ever-changing regulations, competition from the Seminole casinos and the Florida Lottery, and the efforts of groups like Grey2k and Sarasota Defense of Animals, which disapprove of dog racing, it’s a challenging business, to be sure. But with Jack, his brother, and his sister at the helm — and Jack’s daughter and four sons here for the future — the Sarasota Kennel Club and the Collins family seem here to stay. For more information on Sarasota Kennel Club, visit sarasotakennelclub.com or call 941.355.7744.