By Jeff Montgomery
DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP)—As spring slowly arrives in Dubuque, there are occasional signs of life at the city's longtime dog-racing facility.
A skeleton crew keeps an eye on the dogs that already have arrived at Iowa Greyhound Park. In keeping with current social-distancing standards, the employees are at least 6 feet apart at all times.
Races are slated to begin in mid-May of this year. However, General Manager Brian Carpenter acknowledged that the spread of COVID-19 has placed that starting date in question.
“At this point, nobody really knows what is going to happen,” he told the Telegraph Herald.
Carpenter's blunt assessment reflects both the immediate future and the long-term fate at Iowa Greyhound Park, the last remaining dog-racing park in Iowa.
The U.S. once was home to well over 50 greyhound parks and now boasts nine, a swift decline brought about by a combination of economics and animal welfare concerns.
In a twist of fate, the deterioration of greyhound racing on a national scale has temporarily propped up betting activities in Dubuque.
Iowa Greyhound Park collects the majority of its wagers from bettors from outside of the city. As the rapid closure of tracks leaves these bettors with fewer options, they are increasingly directing their bets to Dubuque's track.
This phenomenon is among the many reasons why park leaders are bullish on the outlook for the next few years.
By the end of the year, there will be fewer than a half-dozen parks left in the nation.
“I don't know if we'll be the last one left standing,” said Carpenter, pausing momentarily to contemplate the future. “But we will be pretty close.”
At a time when much of the greyhound industry is in peril, Iowa Greyhound Park is poised to potentially enter the 2020 season riding a wave a momentum.
The total handle—or amount wagered—on races at the Dubuque facility reached $7.68 million in 2019, a 14% increase over the previous year. Wagering has increased in four consecutive years.
The steady increase is due to a sharp rise in the park's “export handle,” which refers to the amount wagered on Dubuque races from bettors elsewhere. That figure ballooned to $6.4 million in 2019, compared with $5.5 million in 2018. That represents a 16% increase.
Carpenter said the 2020 racing schedule is virtually identical to that of the previous year, with 104 planned racing days beginning in mid-May and running through the first week of November.
“If we open up on time this year, I think (the handle) will be up again,” he said.
While the upward trajectory of wagering suggests positive trends, the longer-term outlook for Iowa Greyhound Park is not nearly as optimistic.
Carpenter said the park has finished in the black in recent years—but only because of a combined $5.1 million annual subsidy issued by a pair of Iowa casinos.
A settlement agreement reached in 2014 allowed Dubuque's Mystique Casino & Resort—now Q Casino and Hotel—and the casino in Council Bluffs to sever ties with the greyhound industry.
In return, Council Bluffs agreed to pay an annual $4.6 million subsidy to Iowa Greyhound Park through 2022. Q Casino and Hotel has to pay $500,000 annually through 2021.
These subsidies provide a path forward for 2020 and the two following years, according to Carpenter. But the future beyond 2022 is riddled with uncertainty.
“We're not in a position where we can survive financially on our own,” Carpenter said. “Our goal now is to get through the next three years. After that, I just don't know what will happen.”
Iowa Greyhound Park leases the grandstand from the casino and rents the track itself from the City of Dubuque. The park paid just $1 per year to lease the track for the first five years and is paying a “market rate” for the second five-year term, which runs through the end of 2024.
To understand the area's ongoing connection to greyhound racing, one must understand its lengthy history in Dubuque.
The first greyhound race in Dubuque was held on June 1, 1985. Opening day garnered attention through the state, with Gov. Terry Branstad even appearing in Dubuque to deliver an address to the crowd.
In Dubuque, the park's opening represented more than an entertainment attraction. It was an economic shot in the arm for an area that sorely needed one.
Bruce Wentworth served as the park's assistant general manager in 1985.
Part of his duties involved interviewing candidates for the positions available at the park. Officials conducted the interviews in Five Flags Center, where a massive throng of job-seekers lined up for blocks in hopes of landing a position.
“Back in '85, there were a lot of people looking for work in Dubuque,” Wentworth said. “We had about 300 open positions, and we interviewed 6,000 people over the course of three days.”
Peggy Sue Hoppman was among those who landed a position. She served as a pari-mutuel clerk on the park's opening day in 1985 and has retained that position ever since.
She still recalls the frenzied response on opening day, noting than many eager Dubuquers were new to the concepts of both wagering and racing and faced a steep learning curve.
For months on end, consumers flocked from hundreds of miles away.
“The lines did not stop,” Hoppman recalled. “We had 20 or 30 buses a day that came in from everywhere—from the Quad Cities, the Rockford area, all of the surrounding communities.”
Wentworth said opening the track proved to be “a great move for the city.” He noted that the facility attracted millions of tourists over the years.
Thomas “TC” Christianson served as the racing announcer for more than two decades before retiring in 2018. He describes himself as “a fan in the stands” and said he routinely got to work early to shoot the breeze with those at the park, from the kennel owners to the security guards.
Christianson has come to know many people in the industry, both in Dubuque and beyond. And as racing comes to a close in some states, he worries about its fate here.