History of Greyhounds | USA 19th-20th century
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History of Greyhounds
USA 19th-20th century

The first greyhound was brought to America by Christopher Columbus in 1493. In the late 1800s, a wave of greyhounds arrived in North America as an aid to the Midwest farmers from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas who had enormous problems keeping away jackrabbits from their crops. Soon, greyhounds' role was twofold, as it became popular to organise coursing events in the Midwest. The novel rabbit hunts turned into the most popular form of Sunday entertainment.

According to a certain book about Oregon and California, probably the first coursing competition in the US was organised in 1848 and antelopes were employed as greyhounds' pray. Officially, however, the first coursing meet took place in 1886 at Cheyenne Bottoms, near Great Bend, Kansas and was very successful as spectators from the far New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles turned up to participate in it.

Greyhounds were especially popular among the US cavalry officers serving in the West. These perceptive animals were used both as hunters and lookout dogs. George Armstrong Custer and Major James H. "Hound Dog" Kelly were very popular greyhounds enthusiast. Custer enjoyed his greyhounds to the point of obsession as wherever her travelled by horse he took more than 20 of his hounds that easily kept up with his pace. Custer also had the curious habit of coursing before battles, including the famous Battle of Little Big Horn. Kelly's pack of four greyhounds established a record by running down six out of a dozen antelopes. Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th US President, had a greyhound on this family coat-of-arms

In the very beginning of the 20th century, Owen Patrick Smith, the organiser of coursing meets in Hot Springs, South Dakota, arrived at the conclusion that if the sport of coursing was less cruel it would be even more popular and would meet with greater approval. Smith came up with the idea of artificial hare, but he didn't know that a similar idea was a failure across the Atlantic. The only difference was that Smith imagined that the track with the artificial hare should be oval rather than straight.

In order to raise funds for the realisation of his new project, Smith shared his original idea with George Sawyer, a businessman and greyhound owner. At first, Sawyer was sceptical of the plan claiming that a lure without scent wouldn't work for greyhounds. Nevertheless, in 1907 Smith built a small circular track near Salt Lake City and organised a greyhound competition with an artificial lure in the form of a stuffed rabbit skin that was pulled behind a motorcycle. Despite the fact that the event wasn't entirely perfect, Sawyer was impressed with what he saw and agreed to sponsor Smith.

Smith patented Inanimate hare conveyor, an overhanging arm with the artificial rabbit moving on a trolley along the track. The device was a disappointment as it failed altogether during rainy conditions. In 1919, with the financial aid of Sawyer and a few other businessmen, Smith built a track with a completely new device. This time the artificial hare was placed on a motorised cart that moved along a rail. People didn't enjoy the races as much as Smith wanted and some races were even stopped when the cart left the track.

Sawyer was of the opinion that if the spectators were allowed to bet on greyhound races, the sport would be much more appealing. At first Smith was against the idea, but he finally agreed. The two entrepreneurs allowed bookmakers to take bets at their new track at Tulsa, Oklahoma. Introducing betting was the right step – many people turned up at the track and placed a number of bets.

East St. Louis, Illinois was Smith and Sawyer's next destination. Greyhound racing coupled with bookmaking was more popular: each day, five days a week about 2000 people went through the turnstiles. Some time afterwards, however, the track went bankrupt and Sawyer was no longer interested in the venture.

Smith himself moved to Florida where he found new investors with whom he turned greyhound racing into a successful business for the coming years. Their first track was established in 1922 in the area of the present city of Hialeah. It also became apparent to Smith that night races attracted much more spectators than the traditional day meets. In the following years, Smith helped establish many tracks around the country including Erlanger, Kentucky; New Orleans; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Butte, Montana; and East St. Louis.

Florida was probably the heart of greyhound racing in the US with tracks in St. Petersburg (est. 1925), Miami (est. 1926 and the second one in 1930), Sanford-Orlando and Miami Beach (est. 1927), and Tampa (est. 1932).

In the 1930s, however, the sport became less popular as it was commonplace that bookmakers operating on greyhound tracks were connected to gangsters. Parimutuel betting became legalised in Florida in 1932, in Massachusetts two years later, and in several other states in a few years. The intention was to increase revenue in the country which in the period before the WWII was stricken by the greatest economic crisis in the modern world known as the Great Depression.

In 1992, greyhound racing reached the peak of its popularity in the US with the 3.5 million greyhound racing attendance and a great number of bets totalling $3.5 billion. At the Gulf Greyhound Park near Houston alone in 1992, there was an average attendance of 5,000 for each of more than 460 events. Since then, however, greyhound racing experienced a steady decline which revealed itself in legislative bans on dog racing in Idaho, Maine, North Carolina, Nevada, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. What significantly contributed to the downslide was the fact that dog racing was pushed aside and replaced by other more popular forms of gambling. Secondly, animal rights activists' fervent protests against keeping the dogs for the purpose of racing also played their part.

In the US there are now around 46 tracks in 15 states including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.