Greyhound Dog Racing
A hush falls over the stadium, with six quivering forms anxiously awaiting the starting gun. No jockeys ride on their backs, but their flanks shiver in anticipation of the chase. The alarm sounds, the trap opens and they are off. Flying down the track, the sound of their breathing in the ears of the racer alongside them, in hot pursuit of the ever faster hare.
Lean, liquid bodies flow around the oval, as the spectators watch and hope their favorite takes the prize. For thousands of years, greyhound racing has been the second sport of kings, and despite its issues, remains a vital part of British and American history.
First begun thousands of years prior by the pharaohs of Egypt, greyhound racing pits the fastest dog on Earth against its peers in a contest of agility, speed and drive. The greyhound is uniquely designed for this purpose, with its long narrow head tapering to negligible sinuses. Strong teeth throughout the lean jawbone tapering back to soft, flimsy ears easily tucked away to better soar across the fields and sands. Chocolate eyes, intelligent pools of affection and the desire to chase to please their owners.
The inverted S conformation allows for long, agile lungs to sweep the sides of the ribs. Muscular builds that hold little excess flesh, honed to the perfect balance of strength and speed. A tightly cinched waist and whippet tail complete the structure of these magnificent animals.
Greyhound racing may have existed for centuries, but it is now a highly regulated sport rarely seen in the developing world outside of a few bastion nations who are attempting to preserve the tradition while safeguarding the animals. Racing tracks are still present in the United Kingdom (19 licensed and 3 independent), Ireland, New Zealand, Australia (except for the capital city of Canberra), the United States (it is legal in AR, AL, IO, TX, WI, CT, KS, WV, and OR), Vietnam, China and Mexico.
In order to be a credentialed track in the United Kingdom, trainers and handlers must comply with the Stewards of the Greyhound Board of Great Britain. Formed in 2010, this governing body dictates the principles for the care, training, and general welfare of their canine athletes. Similar regulations govern the race tracks of the United States, although in both countries this was not always the case.
Most readers are perhaps familiar with greyhound racing due to the successful campaigns by humane societies detailing questionable practices of drug usage to ensure a faster race, or how retired greyhounds were adopted out or euthanized. Fortunately for the integrity of this ancient sport, public awareness has led to a renewed and vested interest in these beautiful dogs.
The first documented organization in Britain to enter coursing greyhounds was the Swaffham Coursing Society in 1776. The committee permitted a maximum of 2 hounds to course (chase) a live hare, which was given a head start of 240 yards before the dogs were released. One hundred years later, artificial lures were introduced to the sport at Hendon, and as many as six hounds were set to course the new bait. Artificial lures, while the future of the sport, did not gain a foothold as quickly as some hoped for.
It was a racer from across the pond in America, Charles Munn, who alongside Major Lyne-Dixson of the GBGB reintroduced the mechanical hare and the racing oval. Finding other visionaries that saw the merit in their efforts, they eventually recruited two additional sponsors, Brigadier General Critchley and Sir William Gentile. Together, the four men raised nearly 22,000 GBP, using the funds to form the Greyhound Racing Association.
The first organized oval race on British soil took place July 24, 1926 in Manchester, before a crowd of 1700 spectators to great success. Subsequently, two other stadiums sprang up near London, and the sport enjoyed a huge surge in popularity.
Like its compatriot horse racing, a friendly wager was frequently changing hands, and the governors decided to permit parimutuel betting at the courses. At its heyday in England, there were 70 licensed stadiums running coursing hounds, and attendees numbered around 70 million people who wagered nearly 197M pounds sterling.
Though attendance in England and abroad is declining as changing interests and societal trends update what is fashionable, the sport continues to put on a good showing domestically at its derbies and invitationals. A derby is the highest prize race, and currently, 2 are the most popular in Britain--the Scottish Greyhound Derby raced at Shawfield Stadium and the English Greyhound Derby raced in Nottingham. These races have a minimum purse of 50,000 GBP and attract around 180 entries for six heats each year.
There are two additional races which eligible British greyhounds can course, the Irish Greyhound Derby which is held at Shelbourne Park, and the Northern Irish Derby which was founded in 2010. But derbies are not the only way a greyhound can race. Minor opens, with starting prizes at 150 GBP, invitationals (750 GBP), and category 1-3 races with prizes of up to 12,500 GBP are also sanctioned events.
To enter a sanctioned event and finish in the money, a hound and trainer must run between one and four rounds depending on the category within a 15 day period. Exigent circumstances may be determined by the board of governors, but this is a rare event. Dogs are classified by traps, the ranking process which determines the seeding and betting odds for the heat.
The Racing Manager or Steward selects the dogs based on their ability, past performances, and determines which type of heat they should run. Racing heats are divided into classes of standard, standard plus, sprinting, staying, marathon, hurdle, puppy, and handicapped. The handicap race allows greyhounds of different abilities to compete in the same heat with staggered starting times to permit each dog to race to their potential.
The term traps also refer to the starting gate a hound is placed into before the race takes off. Each starting trap has a color associated with it, running the spectrum of the rainbow from red in Gate 1 to black and white stripes in Gate 6. It is not permitted to race more than 6 hounds in a sanctioned event by the GBGB, although the three independently operated tracks or “flapping” stadiums may run up to 8 hounds in a single heat.
To protect the health and welfare of British racing greyhounds, the GBGB implemented a bonding process that will ensure a retired race dog will be allowed to live out a life of ease once it hangs up its colors. All trainers are required to sign and file a retirement plan with the racing commission, and the commission will follow up on the whereabouts and disposition of the dogs after they are placed. Owners may choose to keep their race dogs as pets, or they can foster the dogs to greyhound adoption groups.
In America, the first formal greyhound oval was constructed by Patrick Star and the Blue Star Amusement Company in 1919 near Emeryville, CA. There was little to no governing legislation for the sport, but that did not diminish its popularity, and by 1930 there were 67 stadiums across the United States. Florida was the first state to completely legalize and permit parimutuel betting, as had been done in England since the 1700s.
Currently, in the United States, only five states continue to hold greyhound races (AR, AL, IO, TX, and WV). Like their English counterparts, American greyhound racing took a hard hit to their reputation for previous questionable practices with breeding and drug use to enhance the dogs’ performance. However, also like their English compatriots, American greyhounds have greatly benefited from legally mandated retirement planning, rescue and fostering organizations, and greater regulation of medication usage.
While the greyhound racing community struggles to find places for their retiring hounds, one of the more surprising success stories of their adoption has been placing them in nursing homes. As more and more elderly are entering the long-term care system in Britain and the United States, there is a growing understanding of how significantly a companion animal can help maintain their cognitive status. Greyhounds also fulfill the perfect role, as they are a tall breed residents can easily interact with from a seated position, such as a wheelchair or while lying in bed.
For more information on how you can adopt a retired racer of your own, visit the website americangreyhound.org in the US, or the greyhoundtrust.org.uk in the United Kingdom.