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Dog Racing: History, Breeding and Identification, Grading, Race Procedures

Dog racing is a sport in which greyhounds or other dogs of similar type compete in pursuit of a live or artificial animal. The most familiar races are those in which greyhounds chase a mechanical lure. The lure is maneuvered around an electrified rail on an oval track.

Because of the greyhound's speed, competitive nature, endurance, keen sight, and instinct to pursue the hare, this dog is used exclusively in professional races.

Another kind of dog racing is called coursing. In coursing, greyhounds usually pursue a hare that is given a head start of about 60 to 80 yards (55 to 75 meters). These races usually take place in open fields or in enclosures on private grounds.

The popularity of dog racing has declined significantly in recent years over concerns about the welfare of the dogs. Opponents of the sport claim that racing dogs are subject to various kinds of abuse and neglect.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), racing dogs are regularly confined in small crates, they do not receive proper veterinary care, and they often suffer severe injuries on the tracks.

The ASPCA also concludes that thousands of greyhounds are deliberately killed each year when they can no longer perform well enough in races. There have also been allegations that dogs are sometimes given illegal drugs to improve their performance. In response to these and other accusations, dog racing is now banned throughout most of the United States and is practiced in only a few other nations.

As awareness has grown about the treatment of greyhounds in racing, so have efforts to provide for the dogs when they retire from racing or otherwise cannot race any longer. Many rescue groups and organizations have been formed to take in the dogs and set up adoptions for them so they can live out the remainder of their lives as beloved family pets.

Development of Racing

Greyhounds are one of the oldest canine breeds. They have been used for hunting and coursing since ancient times. For centuries in England they were dogs of the aristocracy; early British laws forbade commoners to own them.

The first written code for coursing was formulated in England in 1776. Greyhounds were brought to America by the early settlers. During the 19th century they were used mainly to chase jackrabbits and coyotes on the plains.

In 1876 in England the first simulated rabbit was used in greyhound racing in Hendon, Middlesex. The races were run on a straight 400-yard (370-meter) course. The dogs eagerly pursued the lure, but owners lost interest.

An Arkansas promoter, Owen Patrick Smith, is credited with introducing greyhound racing in the United States. He invented an artificial lure and demonstrated his device in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1907. Later attempts to use Smith's lure were made in Houston, Tex., in 1912, and in Emeryville, Calif., in 1919.

Both ventures were failures. This was mainly because betting was not allowed. Attempts to introduce greyhound racing in Tulsa, Okla., in 1920 and Chicago in 1921 were more successful but short-lived.

Racing then moved to Florida, where a track opened in Hialeah in 1922. More than 5,000 fans saw the first Miami Derby in March of that year. Hialeah closed in 1926, the year the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Kennel Club opened its track.

Today the St. Petersburg track is the oldest greyhound course in the world operating on its original site. Its Derby and Gold Trophy races are the oldest continuously running events of their kind in the United States. The first English track opened in Belle Vue, Manchester, in 1926. In Australia the first greyhound track race was run in New South Wales in 1927.

In the 1920s conditions for dog racing in the United States were crude, and the sport was held in disrepute. Because of gangster interest in racing and unsavory conditions at the tracks, some of the racecourses were raided.

With the legalization of pari-mutuel betting, first in Florida in 1932 and later in other states, greyhound racing was elevated to a higher plane. Now, tracks are licensed by the individual states. They are supervised and controlled by state racing commissions.

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The American Greyhound Track Operators Association was founded in Florida in 1947. It promotes the sport and sets up uniform practices for the industry. This association, together with the National Coursing Association (NCA), which began in Nebraska in 1906, established the Greyhound Hall of Fame at Abilene, Kans., in 1963.

The Hall of Fame honors the great track and coursing stars of the past. An All-American Greyhound Team of eight dogs is chosen annually.

Breeding and Identification

The first greyhound stud book was initiated in England in 1882. A separate Irish Coursing Club studbook was begun in 1923. In the United States the NCA has published its studbook since 1906.

The association registers all U.S. litters and issues identification certificates for racers. These certificates must be presented to the state racing commission and the racecourse concerned before a dog can be entered in a race.

Puppies are tattooed in the left ear with the month and year they were whelped (born). This number appears on every racing greyhound's Bertillon card. (This card is named after a card once used for criminal identification.)

The card also shows the dog's age, breeding, owner, color, marks and scars, toenails, weight, and certificate number. A dog's Bertillon is checked and approved by a race official at the track before every race in which the dog is entered.

Grading

The racing secretary of the track grades dogs as to ability and past performance. The secretary also matches those of like grade for the various races. There are generally six grades: A, B, C, D, E, and M (Maiden, nonwinners). Grade A, or sometimes AA, is the best rating a dog can achieve.

The winner of any race is advanced one grade until it reaches A. If a dog fails to finish first, second, or third in three consecutive starts, the dog is lowered one grade. This system of grading dogs was inaugurated in 1948.

Race Procedures

Dogs begin to race at 14 to 16 months of age. Their racing careers last about three years. Strict track rules and regulations protect the dogs and the racing public. Security measures at the track are designed to prevent substitution of greyhounds or administration of any illegal medication.

Once the dogs are brought to the track, they are locked in separate kennels. No kennel personnel are allowed near them until race time. The dogs are brought out from the lockout kennel just before the race.

At that time, an official weighs them, checks their Bertillon, and fits them with a muzzle and a racing blanket. The color of their blanket is determined by their previously drawn post position.

When all the dogs are in the starting box, the lure operator starts the mechanical rabbit around the track. This opens the box, and the dogs are released for the chase.

The lure is kept at a uniform distance and speed, just ahead of the lead dog. Ten or 11 races complete a program. Three judges have final authority on all matters affecting the outcome of the program.

Tracks and Classic Races

Tracks are generally about 1/4 mile around. Race distances vary from 3/16- and 5/16-mile sprints to 3/8- or 7/16-mile sprints.

Amateur Racing

Races with sight hounds other than greyhounds are also an attraction. These other breeds include Afghans, Irish wolfhounds, salukis, Scottish deerhounds, and borzois.

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