If you’ve ever eaten at Rotten City Pizza, you’ve probably seen their logo illustration of a capuchin monkey riding a greyhound and it may have piqued your interest. While it might not necessarily be something we celebrate (we did a lot of things that we aren’t proud of in that “Rotten City” era) the advent of modern greyhound racing is indeed attributed to Owen Patrick Smith right here in Emeryville, CA (although the monkey-riding gimmick was later introduced in Florida in the 1930s).
Greyhounds are the fastest breed of dog with the ability to reach speeds of up to 45 miles per hour in just two strides (second in acceleration only to the Cheetah). The racing of Greyhounds in various forms has apparently been around for as long as 4,000 years.
Animal-rights activists began protesting the killing of jackrabbits as bait in Greyhound racing leading to the invention of alternative lures. Smith experimented with stuffed rabbits mounted to motorcycles and eventually received a patent on a mechanical version that could run around a track. These early efforts have served as the foundation for the development of modern greyhound tracks and the greyhound racing industry.
Owen Patrick Smith (known as “Opie” or “O.P.” by his friends according to this source).
The City of Oakland cracked down on gambling in the early part of the century and Emeryville’s government opportunistically stepped in to accommodate this and other “Vice” industries. Emeryville became a bit of a playground for the East Bay and the Park Avenue Area in particular saw the development of the Emeryville Speedway (located at San Pablo & 47th), Oakland Trotting Park, A Walk-A-Thon arena and of course the Oakland Oaks Ballpark.
Trotting Park view from the Southern Pacific Railroad Tracks circa 1905-1907 (Photo: Oakland Public Library)
Smith opened his first track at Blue Star Amusement on Park Avenue between Horton and Holden Streets in 1919 (current site of Peet’s headquarters). Smith reportedly repurposed lumber from a shuttered boxing arena in Oakland, and used it to construct a grandstand at the cost of $40,000. The construction also incorporated 1,600 pounds of rail and machinery designed to carry the one-pound rabbit lure around the circular track.
Smith’s early Emeryville venture ultimately proved unsuccessful as the feds clamped down on Emeryville’s gambling and corruption. After only a few months in operation, the grandstand and mechanical rails were disassembled and moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma where betting was under less scrutiny.
Within six years, Smith owned 25 tracks around the nation, including ones in Florida, Montana, and Oregon. Greyhound racing became very popular with the working classes in America and before long it spread to England, Ireland and Australia.
The evolution of the sport is detailed in the 1980 book “The Road from Emeryville” by Paul C. Hartwell (Available on Amazon).
Greyhound Racing grew and survived the depression era and the War years but probably reached it peak in the 1950s as it, along with horse racing were one of the few legal gambling forms outside of Vegas. Greyhound racing has declined sharply in recent years as people become more aware of issues with the treatment of the animals amid dwindling attendance. The revenue has reportedly dwindled to the point where State Governments are spending more to regulate the sport than they get back in return.
Today, greyhound racing is illegal in 39 states and exists in just seven including Florida, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Texas and West Virginia. Of the 24 total tracks remaining, 13 are located in the state of Florida. None of the other states has more than two active tracks. Calls to outlaw the sport entirely have been gaining momentum amid America’s growing consciousness of animal cruelty. Greyhound rescue sites to place injured and retired Greyhounds with families are prevalent across the web with the closest being in Walnut Creek (goldengreyhounds.com). Most industry insiders seem to think the sport will no longer exist in ten years leaving it fodder for history buffs.
Blue Star Amusement is recognized today by the Rick Holliday development at Sherwin and Halleck that bears its name and the memory of Greyhound racing is of course kept alive by our friends at Rotten City Pizza.
High Stakes: Greyhound racing in the United States | ASPCA.org [PDF]
The History of Greyhound Racing In New England
The Greyhound Underground Railroad
The Road from Emeryville: A History of Greyhound Racing
Emeryville Historical Society
Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Issues, and Society
Greyhound Racing May Be Headed For The Finish Line