DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — Vera Rasnake laughed as she led a trio of barking and jostling dogs through Iowa Greyhound Park, but her smile faded when she admitted that after 41 years with the stylish animals , his sport was teetering on extinction.
After a truncated season ended in Dubuque in May, the track will close here. By the end of the year, there will be only two tracks left in the country.
“It’s very difficult for me to see that,” 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 in 19 states. Since then, growing concerns over how dogs are treated along with an explosion of play options have nearly killed a sport that rose to popularity around a century ago.
A racing association found betting on greyhounds had risen from $3.5 billion in 1991 to around $500 million in 2014. Many more tracks have since closed.
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 or so tracks. In others like Iowa, state officials allowed casinos to end subsidies that had kept greyhound racing alive as interest waned.
“Do I think the industry is dying? Yes,” said Gwyneth Anne Thayer, who has written a history of greyhound racing. But “it’s happening much faster than I thought.”
Closing the Dubuque track and ending racing in West Memphis, Arkansas, in December will leave racing only in West Virginia, where tracks in Wheeling and near Charleston operate on subsidies from casino revenue.
For some animal welfare groups, the collapse of the industry is the culmination of decades of work to publicize allegations of greyhound abuse. GRAY2K was formed in 2001 and Carey Theil, the organization’s executive director, said he felt a sense of accomplishment now that the end of the sport seemed within reach.
“It’s become one of the defining animal welfare debates of our time,” Theil said.
GREY2K, the Humane Society and other groups have long maintained that greyhound racing is cruel, including its longstanding practice of killing dogs that were not considered the best racers, using drugs to improve their performance, confining them for long periods of time and exposing the animals to risk. injuries on the circuit.
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Industry proponents note that there is now a huge demand to adopt retired racers and deny that the other problems are widespread. They also argue that some don’t understand the love greyhounds have for racing.
On opening day at Iowa Greyhound Park in Dubuque, spectators crammed into a spacious room that overlooked the track, sipping beers and mixed drinks while reviewing race stats before placing bets at kiosks or with attendants. They expressed disappointment at the trail’s closure, lamenting the loss of an entertainment option in Dubuque, a town of about 60,000 known for its stately brick buildings and church steeples built into hills overlooking the Mississippi River.
Peggy Janiszewski and her friend Robin Hannan have been driving about three hours from the Chicago area to Dubuque for years to watch the races. They usually only bet a few dollars on each race, but are more interested in watching the dogs than counting their winnings.
“They are beautiful. Like works of art,” Janiszewski said.
Bruce Krueger said he made the 170 mile (274 kilometer) trip from Milwaukee to Dubuque. He does not believe that dogs are abused.
“I know coaches and they treat them like kings and queens,” Krueger said.
General manager Brian Carpenter was 16 when he started working on the track in his sophomore year and stayed for 36 seasons until this final year.
He remembers the excitement when the track opened in 1985, a time when Iowa was mired in farm bankruptcies and much of Dubuque was struggling. At the time, thousands of people attended the races, with player buses arriving every weekend from Chicago and Milwaukee.
“It was an exciting time and the track offered good jobs,” he said.
Opening day this year drew at least 1,000 people, but small crowds are typical, especially on weeknights.
The Dubuque track was aided by city and state funding, and after Iowa and other states began licensing casinos, the Dubuque operation was expanded to include its own casino.
Thayer’s book, “Going to the Dogs – Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism, and American Popular Culture,” describes a sport with a colorful and often tumultuous history. From its beginnings in the 1920s after the development of the mechanical lure – usually a stuffed bone or stuffed animal that quickly slaps around the track in front of dogs to lure them in – the industry continually lobbied to allow betting to be legalized. State by state and for attention, with the help of Hollywood celebrities, athletes and pageant contestants.
At times, the sport has attracted more spectators than its larger rival horse races. Although considered crummy by some, it was mainstream entertainment for decades, Thayer said.
“People don’t realize how normalized it was in American culture for a long time,” she said.
Greyhound racing also takes place in other countries, including Australia, Britain, Ireland, Mexico and Vietnam, but faces some of the same apparent problems in the United States.
Although greyhound racing in the United States is limited to West Virginia, that state seems determined to keep the sport, said Steve Sarras, president of the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association. Both tracks in the state hold races five days a week year-round.
Sarras said West Virginia lawmakers made repeated visits to his kennel and others to inspect conditions, and were ultimately satisfied that the dogs were well cared for.
“When you see it firsthand, you can’t fake how happy a dog is,” he said.