Fans pile into the arena and fight for the best seats in the house, eager for another Saturday at the tracks. Tens and twenties wave in the air as spectators push to the front of the lines to place their bets. The smell of popcorn, hotdogs, and beer wafts through the stadium as the announcer’s voice booms through the speakers. Competitors warm up behind the scenes as they prepare for the big race, while their coaches’ nerves run skyhigh. Months of training have come down to this exact moment. Adrenaline is running high and the arena is alive with energy. The bell sounds and they’re off!
Six competitors sprinting for victory, fame, money, and maybe an extra treat.
To clarify: six greyhounds.
What is a greyhound?
A greyhound is a type of dog that has grown increasingly popular as pets in American homes. They have a very loyal, loving, gentle, and quiet disposition, and live for about ten to thirteen years. Originally, they were bred to be hunters and chasers of foxes, deer, and hare. Known as the Ferraris of the dog world, greyhounds have made quite a name for themselves through racing. With lean bodies and long, strong legs, greyhounds can reach speeds up to 45 mph, and they can reach 30 mph in only three strides. To put this into perspective, the fastest speed for a racehorse is 44 miles per hour. Due to the narrow, aerodynamic skull and the shock-absorbing pads of their feet, greyhounds were practically built to run.
When and how did the sport begin?
Greyhound racing is a tradition that has been celebrated for centuries on both a national and global scale. The sport originates from “coursing” which was a competition involving the pursuit of a hare by two greyhounds. The dogs were judged on performance and success in catching the hare. Scenes of coursing have been found in Egyptian tombs that date back to before 2500 BC, and the dogs drawn look very much like the modern day greyhound.
In Medieval England, commoners were forbidden to own greyhounds, thus making the dog a symbol of high status and wealth. According to the greyhound Racing Association of America, the dogs’ skill in sighting and catching a game animal became a competitive sport during the 16th century, with two dogs running against each other. Due to the high status of the dog owners, they placed significant bets on the race. Sometimes spectators also gathered and placed their own bets.
This tradition was brought to the United States after the Civil War as farmlands grew throughout the Midwest and into the West. Plants on these farms suffered thanks to a large jackrabbit population, thus greyhounds were imported from England to protect the crops. A popular Sunday afternoon activity quickly became coursing meets: two competing dogs chasing a live rabbit.
Owen Patrick Smith, the director of the Chamber of Commerce in Hot Springs, South Dakota, was appointed to organize a coursing meeting in 1905. Although the meeting was successful, the internal guilt concerning the cruelty of the sport loomed. The dogs attacking the innocent hare was unsettling, so he brainstormed ways to fix the inhumane aspects of the sport. His idea — greyhounds chasing an artificial hare. The first major public demonstration of greyhound racing was held in Emeryville, California, however businessmen were still not sold on the idea.
The sport needed to appeal to more audiences and draw in a larger crowd. People who did not enjoy the sport had a variety of reasons for their distaste: they don’t like dogs, they don’t like races, or they find it boring. Well, what is the one thing in the world that everyone loves?
Money. Thus, betting commenced.
What’s the lingo?
What are the rules of greyhound racing?
The rules of the race are simple and straightforward, thus making it a sport easily accessible and fun for all.
Run fast and win.
Most greyhound tracks in America are exactly one-fourth of a mile, 440 yards, once around from the starting line back to the same line. However, the majority of races in the United States are a 5/16-mile run, which is exactly 550 yards.
The standard 5/16-mile race begins at the top of the front straightaway (also known as the “frontstretch”). The starting box that holds the racing dogs (the trap) is at the top of a shorter straight runway that leads into the main stretch.
As the bell sounds, the mechanical hare speeds past the trap followed by the release of the dogs, eager to pursue their prey.
The race technically ends once the dogs cross the finish line, still in pursuit of the mechanical hare. This is really just an arbitrary point at which “we”, as human beings, determine the winner; the greyhounds continue to round the corner in pursuit of the hare until the lure brings the hare, and consequently the dogs, to a halt.
The lure is essentially a giant toy train circling your living room — except it reaches speeds of 60 miles per hour. It is a large, mobile electric motor that operates under a guardrail as it circles the course. Its “arm” hangs out over the track with a stuffed hare dangling for the dogs to chase. The speed of the lure is ultimately controlled by an operator perched at the top of the stadium with a birdseye view of the entire racetrack.
How do the greyhounds train?
Training for these greyhounds is not a nice walk around the park. They are treated like professional athletes with strict diets and workout plans to adhere to. Young dogs who have yet to start racing gain experience running with two or three other dogs. Sprint fields are commonly utilized by trainers to build speed and strength. They are deep sand paths about 50 yards wide and 200 yards long.
Another typical exercise includes attaching leashes to trucks and cars as they drive around a set course. According to Tom Quinn, active greyhound racer and owner, this “moving treadmill” exercise keeps the dogs moving at a brisk trot to build endurance. Quinn explains that most trainers try to ensure that no active dog goes any 3-day period without some form of workout (truckwalking, sprinting, or short races).
Quinn gave an inside look at a day in the life of his star dog: Run Happy. Run Happy recently made it to the greyhound Derby at Shelbourne Park in Dublin, Ireland. To put this into perspective, Quinn compared this Derby in Ireland to be equivalent to the Kentucky Derby in the United States. Everyone knows what it is, and will pay large amounts of money to watch the race. His dogs are top notch competitors and victors, thanks to their training.
“The dog is woken up at around 7:30 in the morning. He is brought outside to use the bathroom and is fed. He is then put on walkers to get his legs moving and start exercising,” Quinn said. “He has a break and then is brought out for his afternoon exercise session. It is a full 24 hour regimen for these dogs, and they are working hard 24/7.”
What do the dogs wear?
The greyhounds dress to impress in their race day finest. They sport a variety of flashy colors with their number central to their racing shirt, along with a muzzle. Why do they wear a muzzle? It does not impede their ability to breathe, but rather serves two purposes. At the nose of the muzzle, there is a white tip that functions as the official determination of when the dog crosses the finish line. An added bonus is that this white tip starkly contrasts the darker surface of the track, and thus gives great contrast for a picture perfect finish. The muzzle also prevents the chance of any nipping between dogs.
So… why is the industry declining?
Greyhound racing remains a touchy subject among race fans, breeders, rescue groups, dog owners, track owners, and animal rights activists. Despite centuries of racing these dogs both within the United States and world-wide, the industry is beginning to decline. As animal activists voice their concerns for the well-being of the dogs, the pro-racers are struggling to keep this racing tradition alive.
Pro-racers are facing a steep, uphill battle with minimal chance of making it victoriously to the top. “Some things are black and white, but many things are shades of gray,” said Claudia Presto, founder of anti-racing organization Greyhound Gang. “Or in this case, shades of grey.”
Why ban the sport?
Those who denounce the greyhound racing industry started as a smaller group of activists that has been rapidly growing as animal rights movements expand. Similar to professional athletes, a greyhound’s career can be over in a split second due to injury. On the track, greyhounds routinely experience terrible injuries including broken legs, cardiac arrest, spinal cord paralysis, and broken necks.
According to GREY2K, a non-profit organization working to end greyhound racing, more than 15,000 greyhound injuries were recorded between January 2008 and April 2018. The true number of injuries is believed to be much higher by greyhound activists due to the fact that Florida was not required to report greyhound injuries to the public until recently in 2017. In Florida alone, records demonstrate that on average, a racing greyhound dies every three days; anti-racers believe this to be a very high mortality rate for the dogs.
Greyhounds are a very lean breed with minimal body fat and a thin coat. According to activists, despite these physical factors, greyhounds are forced to race in very severe weather conditions, both hot and cold. The dogs can be found sprinting around a track in freezing temperatures in the winter and in stifling heat upwards of 100 degrees in the summer.
While professional athletes travel to away games on first-class airplanes and private buses, the professionally racing dogs do not receive quite the same luxuries. A truck transporting the dogs can be stuffed with up to 60 greyhounds that are packed with two or three dogs per crate. Some of these trucks do not have air conditioning, but rather line the floors with ice to “cool” the dogs. In the spring and summer, deadly temperatures can be reached in these haulers.
Activists believe that even when these dogs are not actively racing, they are at risk for maltreatment and abuse. Greyhounds in this industry spend most of their lives stacked in warehouse-style kennels for upwards of 20 hours a day, or are stored outdoors in dirt pens with minimal shelter. Basic veterinary care, human affection, or adequate sustenance can be scarce for these creatures, meanwhile fleas, sicks, and internal parasites are plentiful.
Why keep the sport alive?
The fight to keep this racing tradition alive beats strong in the hearts of those who love the sport. While some pro-racers are able to recognize the concerns of those with opposing viewpoints, others see solely the good in the sport.
Due to the canines’ athletic and strong physique, it is argued that the sport allows them to do what they were born (or bred) to do: run. These dogs are built to hunt to chase and, according to history, were doing exactly this for farmers to control their jackrabbit populations. The dogs’ slim build allows them to reach speeds of 40 miles per hour; this is quick enough to pursue fast creatures including foxes and deer.
With an owner treating their greyhound as a companion and competitive athlete, it is argued that the dogs are living their ideal life: running while being cared for.
Pro-racers believe that nobody is forcing a greyhound to run. “Greyhounds are as opinionated and different from each other as we are,” said a member of the Greyhound Racing Association of America. “If there was a way to make them run like we want them to, we would have figured it out long ago!” It is believed that a greyhound chases the hare out of pure joy of the run and a biological need to sprint.
They are not horses with riders on their backs instructing them and they are not chasing after the mechanical hare to eat because they are starving.
So, are they truly running for the love of it?
Tom Quinn, passionate owner and racer, defends this wholeheartedly. He comes from a family of greyhound racers and knows nothing but love for the sport. “My dad and mom always had greyhounds when I was a little baby,” Quinn said. “I grew up around greyhounds and am the third generation of racers in my family.” He currently has one actively racing greyhound, Run Happy, and two pups who will start training soon.
“If anybody knows what a greyhound does, they know that they are like a racehorse. That’s why I named my dog Run Happy; because greyhounds love to run. That’s what they are bred to do,” Quinn said. “They are happiest when they’re running and competing. They are competitors, just like a racehorse. They are athletes. They are looked after so well. People do not understand how these dogs are treated and how well looked after they are.”
Looking at the sport through an economic lense stirs more conversation of the potential benefits of the sport. The greyhound racing industry provides a multitude of individuals with their livelihood as a result of working at the race track. Employment opportunities are available through the care for the dogs, such as grooming and veterinary services. Additionally, running the race tracks provides jobs including working the concession stands, parking lots, ticket taking, sanitation management, and betting stations.
What is the current status on racing?
Currently, in forty-one US states, commercial dog racing is illegal. Florida’s ban on dog racing will go into effect on January 1, 2021. With Florida being a central racing state since the beginning of the sport in the US, this ban came as a shock to many supporters. In four states, all dog tracks have been closed and ceased live racing, but a prohibitory statute has yet to be enacted. These states are Oregon, Connecticut, Kansas, and Wisconsin. Dog racing remains legal and operational in only five states: West Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, and Texas.
GREY2K, as mentioned briefly above, is a non-profit organization that works to pass stronger greyhound protection laws and end the cruelty of dog racing on both national and international levels. Since its formation in 2001, the dog racing industry has been diminished by nearly two-thirds.
Racing attendance is diminishing across the United States as laws are being passed to phase out and end the sport completely. Greater proportions of the public are choosing to not participate in this enterprise, making it even more difficult for races to stay operating. Despite centuries of racing, the industry’s days seem to be numbered as more states set bans into action.