Florida has become the latest state to pass legislation that will phase out the sport. It marks a victory for animal rights campaigners

Greyhounds in action at the Palm Beach Kennel Club
 Greyhounds in action at the Palm Beach Kennel Club, which has hosted racing since 1932. Photograph: Brynn Anderson/AP

Way back in 1919, the Blue Star Amusement Company built an oval track in Emeryville, California, so a mechanical lure invented by Owen Patrick Smith could be used for racing greyhounds. Smith intended to charge spectators 99 cents to watch the exotic dogs race.

According to a history of the sport by Grey2K USA Worldwide, a greyhound protection organization, Smith devised the rabbit-like lure, attached to the outside rail of a track, because he thought it would be a more humane alternative to the live hares used in greyhound field coursing.

“Which is ironic: he didn’t know about the millions of dogs who would suffer the consequences,” Christine Dorchak, the president and general counsel of Grey2K, told the Guardian in a telephone interview from Massachusetts, which outlawed dog racing in 2008.

Because of those consequences – which Grey2K says included confinement, drug use, abuse and euthanasia – Florida voters overwhelmingly voted earlier this month to pass a new law, which will end greyhound racing in the state within two years.

“What we’d like is just to see greyhounds being dogs again,” Dorchak said.

Greyhounds are an ancient regal breed; Dorchak said it was once a capital crime to kill a greyhound in England. They are sleek and can run fast, which led to them being bred to entertain humans, and, inevitably, for humans to bet on.

In the decade that followed Smith’s invention, not surprisingly, illegal betting flourished, drawing in organized crime. Finally, in 1931, Florida became the first state to legalize dog racing. Because of its climate, Florida became an epicenter for greyhound racing. Celebrities were often spotted at dog tracks. Frank Sinatra played an unlucky Miami greyhound bettor in a 1959 film, A Hole in the Head, in which the song High Hopes was introduced.

As recently as 1991, $3.5bn was wagered legally at 60 greyhound tracks in 19 US states. But groups like Grey2K were established about 20 years ago hoping to bring about the end of the sport, in which they said the dogs were treated cruelly, often in an effort to cut costs.

The Florida Department of Business and Regulation has reported that more than 460 dogs have died at tracks since the state first started gathering such information in 2013. Dogs that suffer serious injuries during races have often been euthanized.

“There’s a lot, a lot, a lot of abuse in greyhound racing,” Debbie Taylor Darino, a Port Orange, Florida, resident who has been active in animal-rights issues, told the Guardian. “If puppies don’t cut it, they’re euthanized. That’s kind of sick, for one thing.”

So it was hardly perhaps hardly unexpected that opposition to greyhound racing was one of the few issues that could unite Floridians, who are notoriously divided and contentious on many other issues. Voters in the state decided by a margin of 69% to 31% to pass an amendment that will phase out greyhound racing at 11 tracks in the state by 2020.

“It wasn’t a Republican thing, and it wasn’t a Democrat thing,” Dorchak said. “It was a dog thing.”

With the legalization of casino gambling in many states, and because the sport was seen as inhumane, greyhound racing largely had become an afterthought in the state anyway. In its final years, Flagler Dog Track at Magic City Casino, near Miami International Airport, was forlorn and all but empty on race nights, luring only casino customers who’d gone out for a cigarette. Its final race was in June. Greyhound racing in Florida survived mostly because the state mandated that the tracks be kept open, to protect jobs, if the facility sought to add slot machines and card playing.

According to statistics provided by Kate McFall, the Florida state director of the Humane Society of the United States, there are only 11 dog tracks left, in six states, with $500m wagered. State filings showed Florida dog tracks lost a combined $34.8m in 2016.

“The only reason it still exists is that it’s a state mandate,” McFall told the Guardian. “It would have been gone a while ago.”

There were opponents to the amendment, including Jim Gartland, the executive director of the National Greyhound Association. He wrote in a statement to the Guardian that his organization “is deeply disappointed at the result of the Amendment 13 vote.”

He added: “Florida voters have been misled into supporting a measure that not only will cost thousands of jobs in the state but one that opens the door for future campaigns to force the radical animal rights agenda on the people of Florida … Individual family businesses that will be shut down as a result of this amendment may choose to pursue legal remedies against the state; that is their right under the law.”

A spokeswoman for the Palm Beach Kennel Club, which has had greyhound racing since 1932 but also has poker tables and dining facilities, told the Miami Herald that it gets 50% of its revenue from the sport. The kennel, the spokeswoman said, “will do everything in our power to protect our employee’s jobs.”

The sport is being phased out gradually, rather than being halted immediately, so that track owners can explore new options. The phase-out period will be enough time for what Dorchak estimates to be all 3,700 dogs to be adopted. “There are hundreds of greyhound-adoption groups waiting to take them,” Dorchak said.

There won’t be as many greyhounds bred, of course, because far fewer will be used in racing, McFall said. Greyhound racing is to continue in five states – Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa and West Virginia – but the Florida ban is a huge hit for the sport.

“People have been voting with their feet for years,” Dorchak said, adding, “The industry saw the handwriting on the wall. It is the happiest ending.”