The end of an era

The rise and fall of greyhound racing


Photo courtesy of Nancy W. Beach


Picture this: you are sitting in a crowded stadium filled with men and women in suits and hats. You can feel the anticipation as you watch the trainers lead the sleek and muscular greyhounds to the starting box. The buzz of excitement quiets as the race is about to begin when the doors fly open as the greyhounds gallop across the track at up to 45 miles an hour. The crowd cheers and screams as bets are placed and wagers are taken.


Back when greyhound racing was as popular as auto racing, this was a highly sought-after experience, drawing celebrities like Babe Ruth and Sophie Tucker, as well as normal people. However as the years passed, greyhound racing became less popular, hitting its peak in the 1980s. Now only four states allow greyhound racing, and the biggest state for greyhound racing, Florida, just banned it, effectively shutting down the industry as two more followed in its shoes, leaving West Virginia as the only state where greyhound racing is allowed for the foreseeable future.


Modern greyhound racing first came to be in 1910 when Owen P. Smith designed a race track that took the original idea of greyhound racing, two dogs racing to catch a live rabbit, and made it less gruesome, using a mechanical rabbit that the dogs chased around the track. The idea was simple: the first dog to finish the course wins. To get an idea of how the race works, click here to see a modern greyhound race. The sport grew in popularity when betting became illegal, as the tracks found a loophole by selling shares on the dogs. The sport drew a wide range of supporters, but it also met opposition from animal welfare groups.


Predictably, greyhound racing had many scandals associated with it. As with many sports, there were reports of doping or sabotage, where dogs would either be given stimulants like cocaine to make them faster, or were overfed or drugged to make them slower. Grey2K, the agency responsible for getting greyhound racing banned in Florida, reports that dogs were made to race with broken legs and backs, fractured skulls, and even after being electrocuted by the mechanical rabbit they were chasing. Another major issue that greyhound racing faced is what becomes of the dogs once they retire from racing, or if they aren’t selected to race – about 70% of greyhounds. Adoption agencies like the Sighthound Underground and Greyhound Pets of America focus on rescuing these dogs, however there have been instances where the dogs are euthanized or sent to laboratories.


In 2002, a former track guard was arrested when authorities found out he’d killed between 1,000 and 3,000 greyhounds, getting paid about $10 per dog. Another trainer was sentenced to 5 years in prison after it was discovered that he’d left dozens of dogs to die once the racing season finished. Understandably, as the public became aware of these issues, support for greyhound racing diminished, leading to massive drop in revenue and the closure of race tracks. Gambling also decreased in popularity, which meant that greyhound breeding reduced, which meant that there were less dogs to race, which meant there were less races. The supporters of greyhound racing became older, the majority being in their 60s or 70s. The shutdown of race tracks in Florida will mean that many people involved in greyhound racing will lose their jobs, and hundreds of dogs will be homeless. The issue of greyhound racing is a controversial topic, because while supporters say that the greyhounds are well taken care of and enjoy racing, the opposing argument points out that the sport ruins them.  


In an interview with Helen Coleman, an avid member of the Sighthound Underground adoption agency who has adopted 28 greyhounds and fostered more than 30, she was asked her opinion on greyhound racing. After years of experience with fostering and rescuing greyhounds, she knows the industry very well, saying that she is “glad greyhound racing is coming to an end because it is unfair that the dogs are kenneled for hours on end with little social interaction.” However, she does admit that “if you ever see a race, their eyes are lit up like stars. They love the speed, the chase. They enjoy racing.” Coleman says that the industry has become a lot better with taking care of the dogs, recalling how back in the 90s, she would have to essentially steal the dogs to prevent them from being euthanized. However, nowadays she believes that the majority of trainers care for the dogs like their own children and would never hurt the dogs. 


Coleman also mentions the many issues that arise over the continuous kenneling of greyhounds from a young age, pointing out that “since they have been in crates their entire life, with no experience of the outside world, they can easily be overwhelmed and are basically like newborn puppies.”  They also can get tunnel vision from years of chasing the lure, and when they see a small fluffy thing, they can bolt, which can be dangerous for both the owner and the dog.


However, with time and patience, the dogs become great family pets that are gentle and sweet despite their massive size. Coleman describes greyhounds in an adoring light: “they are just the most wonderful animals in the world. They are loyal. Some are dumb as rocks. Some are so smart that they belonged with Einstein because they were always two steps ahead of you. And then there are just the goofs. All they want to do is to be loved and play.”

Photo courtesy of Nancy W. Beach