As greyhound racing ends in Iowa, retired runners like Luci get used to a life of leisure

Luci the greyhound — courtesy of Kanya Petersen

Kanya Petersen always wanted a dog. But it wasn’t until she and her husband, Erik, bought their house in Altoona that they decided they were finally ready to make the commitment.

“We’ve never had a dog before,” Petersen said. “And we were looking online to get ideas for different dog breeds that might fit well with our lifestyle.”

They both liked big dogs, but wanted to stay away from a breed that might be too energetic. Online research was helpful, but it wasn’t until they attended the Iowa Wild’s Pucks ‘n’ Paws game — an annual event the hockey team holds to raise money for dog rescue organizations and promote adoption — that they found their answer.

Heartland Greyhound Adoption (HGA) was there,” Petersen recalls. “They had a couple of dogs that they were just showing off and I really fell in love with the breed on that visit. They were really gentle and laidback. I think one of them basically slept on the floor the whole time.”

Luci and her humans, Kanya and Erik. — photo courtesy of Kanya Petersen

For the Petersens, a greyhound was a fitting choice. According to the American Kennel Club, “the greyhound is a gentle, noble, and sweet-tempered companion with an independent spirit.” While they are fantastic runners, they are also known to be couch potatoes. So the Petersens went to the HGA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding families to adopt retired racing greyhounds.

“People think they should be hyper because they’re a race dog,” said Jody Phelps, president of the HGA. “Well no, they’re a sprinter. So once they sprint, they’re tired.”

In 2018, the Petersens applied for available dogs from the HGA and were matched up with Superior Lucious, a black and white, 4-and-a-half-year-old female with an impressive race record. Superior Lucious — or Luci, as she’s known now — bonded with the Petersens during her first home visit.

“I had these slippers by the front door. We were in the kitchen just letting her kind of roam and get used to her surroundings. And we just look up and here’s Luci standing in the kitchen with one of my slippers. Like, ‘This is mine! I think I should have it,’” Petersen told Little Village. “And we’re like ‘OK, that settles that debate. She gets to stay with us.’ That’s how we met Luci. And that’s how we got a greyhound.”

Luci cuddling in her blanket. — courtesy of Kanya Petersen

The HGA operates through a system of foster families across the state, and as Iowa’s last greyhound racetrack closes this month, HGA is preparing to utilize most of them to re-home retired racers.

“We never know the true figures until we go that day,” Phelps said. “Right now, I believe I’m gonna bring back between 12 and 15 [dogs]. That could change.”

Racing greyhounds are usually retired after they are 4 or 5 years old, but could be retired earlier if they don’t show an interest in racing or if they suffer an injury. The most common injury on the track is a broken leg. According to a report done by Grey2kUSA, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of greyhounds and opposes dog racing, over 400 injuries occurred at the Iowa Greyhound Park in Dubuque between 2010 and 2019.

Once a dog is retired, HGA will pick them up from the track and bring them to a vet. Dogs are tested for hookworms (common among racing dogs) and heartworms, as well as rehabbed for any injuries they might have suffered at the track. They are microchipped, spayed or neutered, and assessed for dental damage (the raw meat diets fed to racers often leads to dental problems). Once all this is completed, they are sent to a foster home that is equipped with everything needed to take care of the retired racers.

“Our fosters have to go through training,” Phelps said. “These dogs have never been in a house, they’ve never done stairs, they don’t know flooring, right? They don’t know any other animals sometimes except another greyhound. So we kind of start with square one when they come off the track.”

In addition to assurance that their dog has received proper medical care, families adopting retired racers are provided with a pedigree that explains the dog’s lineage as well as racing statistics. Superior Lucious, it turns out, was quite the racer.

“I know she raced in, somewhere around 60-65 races,” Petersen said. “I think she placed in about half of them, meaning she got first, second or third. I think she did pretty well.”

Luci on the couch. Although greyhounds are known for their speed, they can sleep up to 20 hours a day. Many owners report very, very lazy greyhounds. — courtesy of Kanya Petersen

Petersen is right. According to the online greyhound racing database, Superior Lucious placed in 34 of the 60 races she was recorded running. She placed first in 10 of those.

Also available on this database is information about Superior Lucious’s genealogy and immediate relatives. This comprehensive look at a dog’s past life is a major draw for greyhound owners.

Most people with rescue dogs don’t have that sort of information, and have to play a guessing game about any possible breed-related health issues. The Petersens and other greyhound owners don’t. That has contributed to the mixed feelings some may have about the impending closure of the Dubuque racetrack, and likely end of greyhound racing entirely in America. For some people there are concerns that without dog-racing breed standards may get blurry.

Iowa legalized greyhound racing in the 1980s, at what turned out to be the end of that industry’s last period of growth. Legislators hoped they were opening up a vital new source of revenue, as the state was suffering through the collapse of the Midwest farming economy. At the end of the ’80s, there were more than 60 greyhound racetracks in 19 states around the country. In Iowa, greyhound racing was centered in Dubuque and Council Bluffs, locations likely to bring in out-of-state dollars.

By the mid-’90s, greyhound racing was in decline across America. Gambling enthusiasts had new options as more states approved casino gambling, and as animal welfare advocates began to focus public attention on the treatment, and mistreatment, of the dogs who are raced.

Greyhounds stretch for the finish line at the Derby Lane Greyhound Track in 2012. The Florida track ended its greyhound races in 2020. — Nancy W. Beach/Wikimedia Commons

Attendance and revenue at tracks declined, both nationwide and in Iowa. A third dog track in Waterloo closed in 1994 after seven years of racing. States that had greyhound racing began banning it, citing concerns about animal welfare. By 2018, there were only 17 tracks left in the country, 11 of which were in Florida, the state that first legalized greyhound racing in 1931. But that year, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment banning dog racing after 2021. After the closure of the Florida tracks, there were only four left in the U.S. – one in West Memphis, Arkansas, two in West Virginia and the Iowa Greyhound Park in Dubuque.

The Dubuque park was still open because state law required the Mystique Casino in Dubuque to spend millions every year subsidizing it.

Iowa, of course, embraced casino gambling in the ’90s, for the same reasons it embraced greyhound racing in the ’80s. And Council Bluffs and Dubuque were considered prime locations for casinos for the same reasons dog parks were located there. Concerned about the competition, the Iowa Greyhound Racing Association (IGRA), a very effective lobbying group, was able to strike a deal in which the casinos in Council Bluffs and Dubuque would get their licenses in exchange for subsidizing their local dog tracks.

The number of races held each season at the two tracks and size of prize payouts for winners, as well as the amount the casinos had to pay the two tracks every year, were all written into state law.

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As interest in greyhound racing continued to decline — the combined total for betting at the two tracks in 1986 was $186 million; in 2012, it was $5.9 million — the casinos started pushing to end the deal, and for years the IGRA was successful in defeating those efforts. But in 2014, the combined efforts of the casinos, the elected officials of Council Bluffs and Dubuque, and the business communities in those cities, persuaded the Iowa Legislature to pass a bill gradually ending the subsidies with the final state-mandated annual payments scheduled for 2021.

The Council Bluffs track didn’t wait for the subsidies to run out. It closed in 2015. The Dubuque track received its final payment of $5.1 million in 2021, and announced it would close in 2022 after an abbreviated season. The Arkansas track is also closing this year, which will leave the two in West Virginia as the only active greyhound racing tracks in the U.S.

The impact of the end of greyhound racing in Iowa after decades is being felt beyond those who worked or gambled at the final track.

“It breaks my heart. I’ve known these people for many years, watched their kids grow up,” Phelps said, thinking about track employees, owners and breeders. “These people are the most generous, kind, loving people and they’re not going to abuse a dog they make money on. You’re not gonna be mean to a dog that you want to turn around and race later. Because they’re not gonna perform.”

This seems to be the case for Luci. As Kanya Petersen describes it, “Based on how much of a diva she is at home, we assume that she was pretty spoiled.”

Luci at a greyhound playdate. Muzzles protect greyhounds from accidentally harming another dog’s thin skin with their sharp teeth. Greyhounds are muzzle trained and wear them while racing as well. — courtesy of Kanya Petersen

But unfortunately, that isn’t the case for all.

According to the executive director of Grey2kUSA, Carey Theil, monetizing a dog’s performance can lead to exploitative situations. “I think if you look at it from a macro perspective, the industry uses a lot of standard practices that are designed to secure the highest financial return from each individual dog while incurring the least amount of cost,” Theil said. “And so from our perspective, you know, those are essentially shortcuts that harm animal welfare.”

Some of these “shortcuts” include keeping dogs in warehouse-style kennels for several hours a day; dosing females with an anabolic steroid called methyltestosterone to prevent them from going into heat so they can race longer; feeding racers dead, dying, diseased, or down meat (4-D meat) which can lead to illness or even death in some cases; and using factory farm products, such as flea and tick medications, on dogs.

Theil adds that according to state records, 91 dogs have died on the track in Iowa since 2008. “The industry operates like it’s still 1950,” he said. “With the exception of adoption, there’s been no significant changes to how this industry operates in many, many decades. And the world around it has changed. And it suddenly finds itself in a place where it’s out of touch with mainstream values.”

Opinions like Theil’s aren’t universally held in Iowa, even though Dubuque’s track is about to close. Its last race will be run on Sunday, May 15.

“It’s gonna be very emotional,” Phelps says. “It’s gonna be a hard, hard weekend.”

But for the dogs that Phelps will bring back with her to HGA, it will be the beginning of the rest of their lives off the track. If their fresh starts look anything like Luci’s, those dogs can expect a large yard to run in, loads of snacks and all the squeaky toys they can imagine. And of course, plenty of comfy spots to sleep in.

Luci ‘roaching’ on the couch — courtesy of Kanya Petersen

“‘Roaching’ is a habit they can develop where they sort of roll on their back when they’re sleeping with all four legs in the air,” Petersen explained. “Luci will do that occasionally, but only if she’s super content.”

Petersen says since the Dubuque track has announced its closure, she’s signed up to receive a foster greyhound from the HGA.

“I have no idea how that will go,” she said. “It’ll probably be a foster fail. But don’t tell Erik.”

Paul Brennan contributed to this article.