DUBUQUE, Iowa — Vera Rasnake laughed as she led a trio of barking, jostling dogs into the Iowa Greyhound Park, but her smile faded when she acknowledged that after 41 years of being around the sleek animals, her sport was teetering on extinction.
The track will be closed after the May truncated season at Dubuque. Only two tracks will remain in the country at the end the year.
“It’s very hard for me to see this,” Rasnake said.
It’s been a long slide for greyhound racing, which reached its peak in the 1980s when there were more than 50 tracks across 19 states. Since then increased concerns over how dogs are being treated and an explosion in gambling options have almost ended a sport that was so popular a century back.
Greyhound betting fell from $3.5 Billion in 1991, to around $500 Million in 2014. This was according to a racing organization. Many tracks closed since then.
In some states like the dog-racing mecca of Florida in 2021, it was voter initiatives that ended the sport at the state’s dozen tracks. Iowa and others allowed state officials to remove subsidies that kept greyhound racing alive, despite declining interest.
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“Do I think the industry is dying? Yes,” said Gwyneth Anne Thayer, who has written a history of greyhound racing. But “it’s happening way faster than I thought it would.”
Racing in West Memphis will cease at this time due to the closing of Dubuque’s track. West Memphis is home to racing. Wheeling, West Virginia has tracks that are supported by casino revenues.
For some animal welfare groups, the industry’s collapse is the culmination of decades of work to publicize allegations of greyhound mistreatment. The group GREY2K was formed in 2001 and Carey Theil, the organization’s executive director, said he feels a sense of accomplishment now that the sport’s end seems within reach.
“This has become one of the signature animal welfare debates of our time,” Theil said.
GREY2K, the Humane Society and other groups have long argued that greyhound racing was cruel, including its longtime practice of killing dogs that weren’t deemed top racers, using drugs to enhance their performance, confining them for long periods and subjecting animals to the risk of injury on the racetrack.
The industry supporters acknowledge that there is an enormous demand for retired racers to be adopted and do not believe the problems they face are as widespread. They also contend that some don’t understand the love greyhounds have for running.
The Iowa Greyhound Park opened its doors to the public on the first day. Hundreds of people gathered in a large room with a view over the track. There they enjoyed beers, mixed drinks, and a look at racing statistics. The spectators expressed dismay at the closure of the track and lamented the loss of entertainment options in Dubuque. Dubuque is home to about 60,000 people, which are known for their stately brick buildings as well as the church steeples that rise up on top of the Mississippi River.
Peggy Janiszewski, Robin Hannan and their friend have been driving for over three hours each way from Chicago to Dubuque since the beginning to view the racing. While they may only wager a few bucks on each race, their primary interest is in the dogs rather than counting their winnings.
“They’re beautiful. Like works of art,” Janiszewski said.
Bruce Krueger claimed that he’s been taking the 170-mile (274)-kilometer drive from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Dubuque. He doesn’t believe the dogs are mistreated.
“I know some trainers, and they treat them like kings and queens,” Krueger said.
Brian Carpenter, General Manager was 16. He started at the track’s second year. The track remained there for 36 seasons before he retired.
The excitement of opening the track in 1985 was what he remembers. It was during a period when Iowa was mired by farm bankruptcies, and Dubuque was still struggling. Back in 1985, the race was attended by thousands. Buses of gamblers arrived from Chicago and Milwaukee every weekend.
“It was an exciting time and the track offered good jobs,” he said.
This year, the opening day attracted over 1,000 visitors. But on weeknights, much smaller crowds were common.
After funding from the city and the state, Dubuque was able to continue its track. In addition, after Iowa, among other states, allowed casinos, Dubuque was able to expand its operation with a casino.
Thayer’s book, “Going to the Dogs,” describes a sport with a colorful and often tumultuous history. From its beginning in the 1920s following development of the mechanical lure — typically a stuffed bone or stuffed animal that swiftly clatters around the track ahead of the dogs to attract them — the industry was continually pushing to allow for legalized betting state-by-state and to attract attention, with help from Hollywood celebrities, athletes and beauty pageant competitors.
Sometimes, it attracted more viewers than rival horse racing. Thayer stated that although it is considered to be seedy, the sport was a major entertainment source for many decades.
“People don’t realize how normalized it was in American culture for a long time,” she said.
Although greyhound racing is also held elsewhere in countries like Australia, Great Britain and Ireland, Mexico, Vietnam and Mexico, it faces some of the same issues as the U.S.
Greyhound racing in America will remain restricted to West Virginia. But, Steve Sarras of the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association stated that West Virginia seems determined to retain the sport. The state’s two tracks run races five-days a week year-round.
Sarras claimed that West Virginia legislators visited his kennel several times to check the conditions. They were eventually satisfied with their dogs’ treatment.
“When you see it firsthand, you cannot fake how happy a dog is,” he said.
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