Book review by Mardy Fones
No matter where you stand on dog racing, there’s food for thought and much to learn about racing greyhounds in Gwyneth Anne Thayer’s recently released (June 15) “Going to the Dogs: Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism, and American Popular Culture,” (2013, University Press of Kansas).
An outgrowth of Thayer’s 2010 doctoral dissertation, GTD is neither a puff piece for the business of dog racing nor a crusade for its ban. Rather, it’s an attempt at an honest, measured, thought-provoking conversation about the people, forces, culture and events at the heart of dog racing.
GTD is concurrently reflective, insightful and deeply researched as well as disturbingly honest. Her overview of anti-racing’s persistence in using inflated statistics, outdated images and dubious tactics to garner support is fact-based and concise. If you can’t bear the details of the early industry’s disregard for greyhound welfare, you can still read GTD. For the most part, the book is cleanly divided into chapters that enable the reader to bypass the more unsavory details (Chapter 5) about abuse in dog racing’s past while learning about its history, politics, economics and the social changes that are leading to its demise in the U.S.
Remember, it’s not that long ago that dogs — all dogs — had jobs, whether herding, hunting or hauling. In the greyhound’s case, that job has stayed much the same, but its constituency hasn’t. Initially employed to run down small animals for the entertainment of Europe’s landed gentry, by the early 20th century racing emerged as its new occupation. So, instead of culling rabbits, greyhounds entertained and the payoff (for people anyway) was a well-placed bet. In American popular culture, greyhound racing was understood, then and now, says Thayer, not as a sport of the elites but as a working- and middle-class spectator sport inextricably linked with gambling.
A Class Act
Calling “class” the great unspoken topic in American history and culture, Thayer assesses the friction between those in racing and adoption as rooted fundamentally in class struggle and cultural upheaval. That is, the greyhound business is made up primarily of working-class white men. Adoption’s forces? Educated, middle-class white women. Nothing foments discord like one culture’s attack on another’s way of life.
Likewise, Thayer explores a similar dichotomy in early anti-racing champions. These, she reports, focused on the moral and economic ruin that could befall gamblers. And initial animal advocates focused on the live rabbits being used as lures not the hounds. Thayer describes how this issue was ironically resolved via the invention of the mechanical lure, a device that helped spread racing across the nation. Be sure to visit the section after the last chapter to see the comprehensive list of states and cities where tracks do or did operate, whether legally or illegally. It’s eye opening to see how widely spread greyhound racing once was.
Thayer says in her introduction that she was drawn to this topic by her relationship with her hound, Zachary (More Curious), a 72-pound black ex-racer who left the Southland track in 2004 after zero races. But also by myriad questions most of us who have these dogs have asked, but to which factual answers are absent. Case in point — how did greyhounds come to America and why?
The stock answer is with Irish immigrants. But think about it, says Thayer. Most Irish immigrated to escape the deprivation of the potato famine and settled along the east coast in urban areas, not the agrarian Midwest, dog racing’s birthplace. She calls it a romanticized myth that impoverished Irish immigrants could have schlepped greyhounds to sell amidst their meager possessions. So maybe they were brought to eradicate rabbits in the American West? Maybe. By whom and from where? There simply are no records.
And why so many tracks in Florida? The Sunshine state made a natural home for dog racing as the state beat the tourism drum and working- class people with more leisure time came looking for excitement. It’s these same elements that fostered dog racing’s shady side exemplified by the involvement of gangsters such as Lucky Luciano and Al Capone along with entertainers such as Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason to the tracks for gambling. Gleason even owned racing dogs, Thayer reports. Likewise, race attendance by the likes of Babe Ruth and Dizzy Dean, baseball players in Florida for spring training, provided another dose of glamour.
Along the way, Thayer makes good use of dog racing’s sporadic cameos in movies and TV to reflect its perception in popular culture. These range from “Dark Hazard,” (1934) and “Hole in the Head” (1959) that mirror racing’s criminal links. The ethics of dog racing is center stage in The Odd Couple’s, “And Leave the Greyhounds to Us?” (1971). Here, Felix and Oscar verbally spar over the fate of a racing dog Oscar won while playing poker. Then there’s the 1963 Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color segment, “Greta the Misfit Greyhound,” and The Simpson’s “Roasting on an Open Fire” (1989) and “Two Dozen and One Greyhounds” (1995).
Read with an open mind, GTD is unblinking, provocative and comprehensive. Whatever you do, check the footnotes and bibliography. They’re packed with details, intriguing esoterica and useful information/references that are a window into practices and people on both sides of the argument.
When asked if she sees any chance for racing and adoption to work more collaboratively and expansively for the post-racing welfare of hounds, Thayer looks to the middle ground. She says while parties on opposite ends of this conversation are intractable, she interviewed many people on both sides willing to cooperate for the welfare of the hounds. She believes cooler-headed, more compromising forces can prevail and find new solutions to protect racing greyhounds.
Mardy Fones is a member of the Board of Directors of GPANashville and has four greyhounds. She and her husband own dogs racing at Southland and Birmingham.
“Going to the Dogs” can be ordered through the University Press of Kansas via this link: http://www.kansaspress.ku.edu/order.html <http://www.kansaspress.ku.edu/order.html> , as well as at your favorite online and brick-and-mortar booksellers.