Maria Sachs
Maria Sachs (Maria Sachs)

With “Johnny Depp,” “Twiggy” and “Whisper” by her side, the Senate’s first lady, Vicky Gaetz, could not hold back the tears when asked why she was participating in a press conference about the perils of greyhound racing.

“I’m so passionate about it that I can hardly speak about it,” Gaetz, the wife of Senate President Don Gaetz, said Tuesday. “It’s just an issue I’m very passionate about, anything involving animals or children who are neglected or abused.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, the president’s son, knelt beside his mother, who is in a wheelchair, and planted a kiss on her cheek.

“It’s OK, mother,” the normally brash Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said.

During the press conference, Matt Gaetz said he learned from his mother that “you can tell a lot about any person by how they’ll treat an innocent and defenseless animal.”

Matt Gaetz joined Sen. Maria Sachs in what has become for Sachs a perennial fight to eliminate greyhound racing.

“This is an activity that very few people watch, even fewer people bet on and it’s an activity that erodes our collective humanity. I look forward to Sen. Sachs passing her very good amendment today that will end the government mandate to engage in a barbaric activity,” he said.

But despite pressure from the Senate’s “first family,” the Senate Gaming Committee stopped short Tuesday of trying to do away with greyhound racing and instead approved a measure that would force tracks to report injuries and deaths to the state.

The Gaetz clan—Vicky, Matt and the Senate president—were all on hand at the meeting where, after some heated sidebar huddles between GOP lawmakers, Sachs backed down from her attempt to allow dog tracks to stop racing greyhounds.

But Sachs said she isn’t backing down from her push to “decouple” greyhound racing from other types of gambling. The movement is supported by animal rights groups including Grey2K, which, like Sachs and Matt Gaetz, contend that greyhound racing is a thing of the past, costs the state money and has led to cruel treatment of the racing dogs by some operators who only use the dogs as a means to operate more lucrative poker rooms. The pari-mutuel permits allow the race track operators to operate card rooms and, in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, slot machines.

Instead of doing away with dog racing, the committee signed off on a proposal (SB 742) by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, that would require tracks to report injuries and deaths of greyhounds, something only two states—Alabama and Florida—do not currently mandate. According to one report, 74 greyhounds died in a six-month period in 2013—an average of three dogs per day.

Jack Cory, a lobbyist who represents the Florida Greyhound Association, told reporters that most dogs die because of injuries on poorly maintained track surfaces, electrocution from the “bunny” that runs around the track or a lack of breakaway fences.

Cory, whose group represents greyhound breeders, owners and kennel operators, said racing should continue to be required for other gambling operations, like cardrooms, because that is what voters authorized.

“You said you were going to be a live pari-mutuel. Either be a live pari-mutuel or turn your license in,” Cory said.

At least three members of the panel—Sens. Tom Lee, Jack Latvala and Gwen Margolis—objected to a series of amendments proposed by Sachs that would have gone far beyond allowing the state’s 16 greyhound tracks to decide whether they wanted to race dogs or not.

One of the proposals would have essentially allowed each of the tracks—including holders of permits that are currently dormant or in use at other tracks—to move elsewhere in their counties and set up poker rooms and offer simulcast wagering.

Sachs’ amendments prompted confusion and intense questioning by Margolis and Latvala.

“We have demonstrated that’s an expansion of gambling … under the guise of decoupling, there’s an expansion in there,” Latvala, R-Clearwater said.

Margolis objected that the complicated amendment, filed on Friday, lacked a staff analysis or any information about how much it would cost the state.

“The whole thing is a big mish-mash of stuff, and I don’t know what the fiscal impact is,” Margolis, D-Miami, said.

“Dog racing is losing money. The animals are not treated well. Until we fix that, we’re not going to have humane treatment of our animals,” Sachs, D-Delray Beach, said after the meeting.

But Sachs said she hasn’t given up on ending greyhound racing.

“I withdrew the amendments because it needed more work. … I think we’re going to see my amendments again. I think they are going to be in a way that will make sure that there’s not an expansion of gambling,” she said.