Racing Dogs

My connection with greyhound racing is etched in vivid childhood memories. My dad was a plasterer who had a second job to help support our family. On weekends and Wednesday evenings he worked as an assistant starter at Derby Lane dog track in St. Petersburg, Florida, helping place dogs in the starting box before each race.

Jim Porter at Derby Lane

Derby Lane, the St. Petersburg Kennel Club, claims to be the oldest continuously operating greyhound track in the world. It was carved out of palmetto scrubland on the edge of Tampa Bay in the 1920s. The club’s first race was held on the afternoon of January 3, 1925. The final race was nearly a century later in December 2020, just days before greyhound racing was banned in Florida. According to the Humane Society of the United States, greyhound racing is cruel and inhumane and is now illegal in more than forty states, including Florida.

I wasn’t allowed to attend the regular dog races because Derby Lane was a gambling establishment—no children allowed—but I did go to the schooling races on occasion. These were practice races, probably for young dogs, and I never observed anything cruel or inhumane.

The starting box, where my dad worked, consisted of a long, low unit with eight greyhound sized stalls. The handlers walked the dogs to the box on a leash and my dad helped them remove the leash and stuff dogs in the box. Each dog wore a colorful vest with a number from one to eight on it. Once the dogs were loaded, a mechanical arm was activated and a fuzzy, white artificial rabbit began its run around the track. My recollection is that the starter held a button in his hand that was connected to the dog box by a cord. When the mechanical rabbit was in front of the box at a spot the starter was looking for, he pushed the button which caused the entire front of the box to burst up and expose all of the dogs to the rabbit at the same time. When they bolted out in their colorful vests with their front legs extended and their necks stretched out toward their quarry, it was the most exciting thing I had ever seen. They raced around the track chasing the rabbit which glided along its arm on the inside rail.

I assume that somewhere, someone was controlling the speed of that mechanical rabbit so the dogs were close behind, but they could never quite catch it. After they had crossed the finish line, the rabbit snapped into a box along the rail and the dogs gathered at the box where they could be retrieved by their handlers. The dogs were excited and winded after the chase, but they appeared happy to me as a young boy as they danced around with their tails wagging. Of course, I only saw the end result. I could not know how these majestic dogs came to be there.

According to the ASPCA, racing greyhounds routinely experience terrible injuries during training and when racing. And, while greyhounds may live a dozen or more years, they were usually retired from racing by two to five years of age because they were either deemed unfit to race after an injury or no longer fast enough to be profitable. Today, most of these retired dogs are sent to rescue groups. In the sordid past of this cruel sport, they were quietly euthanized. Today, there are hundreds of rescue organizations around the country that are ready to step in on their behalf—organizations like Second Chance Greyhounds out of Douglasville, Georgia.

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