Change has been the theme of this election year. We all know about the change that happened in the White House and the change that didn’t happen in California.
There was also a referendum that gained little publicity outside the state where it was held, but it could eventually have repercussions in sports, or at least in the gaming industry, nationwide.
Last month, the voters of Massachusetts decided to ban dog racing. The state’s two greyhound tracks, Wonderland and Raynham-Taunton Park, will have to cease operations by Jan. 1, 2010, barring any last-minute legal challenges.
This may seem minor to anyone unfamiliar with dog racing, but it’s a major blow to the sport. Of the 16 states where dog racing is legal, only in Florida has it been entrenched more firmly. When Sports Illustrated ran an article on dog racing in the early ‘90s, Wonderland, one of the most popular dog tracks in the U.S., was featured because it regularly outdrew the Boston area’s Thoroughbred race track, Suffolk Downs. SI used this example to infer that dog racing was a major threat to horse racing. (Which is sort of like comparing Ohio State football to the Cincinnati Bengals and inferring that college football is superior to the NFL.)
That threat never materialized, mainly due to increased competition from casinos and other forms of gaming, but also because many people became aware of dog racing’s dirty secrets.
They were enough to turn me off the sport in a hurry.
It wasn’t always that way. I became a dog racing fan in the mid-1990s when I covered Delta Downs, a Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse track in Vinton, La., for Daily Racing Form. When I found out there was a dog track, Gulf Greyhound Park, just two and a half hours to the west near Houston, I had to check it out.
I immediately became fascinated by the constant action (a race goes off every nine or 10 minutes, compared to 18 to 20 minutes for horses), the program statistics, the ease of handicapping (two words: early speed), the letter-grade system of ranking dogs that assured a competitive race—and, of course, the dogs themselves.
The greyhound is the opposite of most people’s idea of a pretty dog—so thin, with a coat that appears matted (but is thicker than it looks) and bulging, cartoonish eyes, it appears from the front as if half of it is missing, but it possesses a unique, regal beauty. I must have looked like the biggest idiot at the track when I would watch the post parade from the rail and gush over the field. “Aww…look at them little guys…aww, big babies, they’re looking so sad…aww, that one’s got racing stripes!” As Bob Seger once said, I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.
I even gave the breed a nickname. I once covered high school sports for a team called the Greyhounds, who had a mascot named Scuffy. Scuffy inspired me to dub greyhounds in general “scuppy dogs.”
Soon, I was going to Gulf whenever I got the chance. I would stay in a motel overnight on long weekends to catch racing action for two straight days. I even developed a good-luck ritual when I approached the place on I-45—I would always sing the theme from “Scooby-Doo.” (Yeah, I know, Scooby’s a Great Dane. Sue me.) If time permitted, I would either come or leave via a back way in order to take the Galveston Ferry, get out of my car and enjoy the Gulf breeze. It was pure degenerate gambling bliss.
At the time, I wondered why dog racing existed in gaming’s ghetto. It seemed like a secret world, an acquired taste. Even non-racing fans can name several champion Thoroughbreds, but the only racing dog most people can name is Santa’s Little Helper.
I would not learn the reason until a few years later.
I started reading online about the cruelty of the sport. I read about overbreeding and how the puppies that don’t make the cut are killed. I read about the practice of training dogs with “live lure”—teaching them to hunt using live rabbits, cats and other animals. I read about how, despite the industry’s burgeoning adoption program, many dogs are killed when their racing days are through—and the canine “killing fields” that have been discovered to prove it. The dog racing industry has done little to refute this evidence, aside from making increasingly desperate pleas to adopt a retired racer.
I haven’t set foot in a dog track since I learned the truth about the sport, but I always kept a tiny glimmer of hope that the industry might somehow find a way to clean up its act.
I know in my heart that the voters of Massachusetts have done the right thing—but why does the vote leave me feeling a little bit sad?
For information on Going Home Greyhounds, an organization that places retired racing greyhounds in homes in the Pittsburgh area, go to www.goinghomegreyhounds.org.