Thirty years ago, there were more than 60 greyhound race tracks across the country. Now there are fewer than 25. Some tracks closed when states like Massachusetts banned the practice, but even more are closing as greyhound racing becomes less popular and gamblers take their dollars to casinos and online betting parlors.
But greyhounds are more popular than ever. According to the American Greyhound Council, nearly 300,000 have been adopted by people like Abigail Baker. Over the years, Abigail has given a home to five former track dogs, and they all have loved to show her what they can do.
"They want to get out there and sprint," Abigail said. "And then they want to do a big figure eight because, I believe, they like to run by me and say, 'Hey. Look at me. I'm really fast!'"
After spending their early years racing at a greyhound track, ten-year-old Patterman and Abigail's other elderly greyhound, Olivia, are too old to race, even as amateurs. But on a recent rainy May day, Patterman still whined and pawed longingly at the starting box for an amateur greyhound race.
"Well, they know it's going to be fun," Abigail said. "This is the start of fun."
This is a LGRA event, held on a private landowner's grass runway in Southern New Hampshire. The Large Gazehound Racing Association was formed to give greyhounds a place to race for the sheer joy of it, but it's not just greyhounds who are allowed to run. Older dogs like Patterman and Olivia are allowed to run for short distances during lunchtime practice breaks. And, even little basenjis, who look nothing like their quick and powerful cousins, get in on the fun.
Waiting at the finish line were loving owners who offer the same praise and belly rubs for the last place finisher as they did for the dog who came in first. Abigail freely admitted that her love of the sport has become a bit evangelical.
"I do feel sorry for people who adopt greyhounds and they never do this," Abigail said. "They never go out and let their dog do the thing it wants to do the most."
At role call and inspection, Kate Binder, race secretary for Granite State Greyhounds, carefully checked the gait of each dog and looked for any sign of injury. Some, especially the basenjis, weren't so sure about running on the wet grass.
Kate's greyhounds were resting at home after running races the day before. But, she said, even those dogs who didn't look enthusiastic about the damp conditions would be thrilled when it came time to race.
"Oh yeah," Kate said. "It's what they're made to do. When I start getting my stuff up out of the basement before a weekend of racing, they know. They know where we're going. And they start getting excited every time I shift on my chair from then until it's actually time to get in the van and drive to the racing field, they're at the door. 'Can we go now, Mom? Can we go? Are we going racing?' They love it."
Even when Kate didn’t own a dog who could race competitively, she gave her weekends over to acting as race secretary for Granite State Greyhounds. Racing proponents drive hundreds of miles to give their dogs a chance to run down the 200 yard grass track. After so much effort has been put into banning professional greyhound racing in states around the country, Kate admitted that amateur dog racing is not without controversy. Dogs, especially those who aren't conditioned properly, sometimes get hurt. But in her opinion, those who object just don't understand greyhounds.
"Greyhounds are not rescued from having to race," Kate said. "It is true that the racing industry has problems, but having the greyhounds running is not one of them. Do you let your kids play soccer? Or, god help us, hockey? It's risky and they can be injured, but it's what they want to do."
Between the excited dogs and the slightly eccentric owners, a LGRA event is carefully controlled chaos. On the first race of the day, Phoenix, a beautiful snowy white Saluki, raced against herself. No other Salukis came out to race.
The metal starting box looked and sounded impossibly scary, but Phoenix went in without any trouble. Kate ran to the front of the box and shook the lure, a plush squeaky toy on a long rope.
The second the lure started to move down the track, another Granite State Greyhounds member opened the box. Phoenix's graceful body bolted down the 200 yard course in just a few seconds. I know that dogs can't really smile. But, as I watched her fly past, I couldn't shake the feeling that Phoenix was grinning from ear to ear.
After a busy day of greyhound racing on Saturday, Toots was the only greyhound entered in Sunday's race. Donna Collins adopted Toots from the Wonderland race track in 2007. Donna says she was calm, loving, and in peak condition. She's also slow. At most LGRA events, Toots wins the turtle, the award given to the slowest dog of the day. It's a distinction that doesn't bother Toots or her owner in the slightest.
"She doesn't care because she has actually figured out that if she slows down at the end she can be the first dog on the lure," Donna said. "And that's what she wants."
April showers are supposed to bring May flowers, but this spring…they brought more rain. Kate Hare and her husband drove up from Downingtown, Pennsylvania to let their Irish Deerhounds try racing for the first time. Kate didn't really get the chance to watch. She spent her dog's practice run hiding behind a yellow plane parked on the side of the runway. When she emerged, Kate eyed the overcast skies and wondered if she should be wearing her raincoat.
"Believe me, if it was pouring down rain, everybody would still be out here doing this, as long as the footing was safe," Kate said. "And everybody still stays to the very end and has lunch and has a good time whether it rains or not."
And with that, the skies opened up. For the next two hours the humans got drenched while the dogs happily ran down the racetrack in the rain.
Michele Houghton, President of Granite State greyhounds, said a little discomfort on her part was worth the joy this event brings to her dogs.
"They don't care if it's raining," Michele said. "They wouldn't care if it was snowing. They don't care. They just want to run."
At the end of the day, there were no betting slips to settle up, just blue ribbons for the winners and gag gifts for the turtle. The dogs were settled in their beds in warm, dry cars while their owners cheered for each and every competitor, even the ones who didn’t finish, and the ones who had no one to compete against except themselves.
The Granite State Greyhounds wouldn't have it any other way…
This segment aired on May 21, 2011.