.The Greyhound Underground Railroad

Once they're done chasing the mechanical rabbit, greyhounds gotta go somewhere. That would be Susan Aceves' backyard.

Susan Aceves got the phone call late Wednesday night. A dog kennel in Tucson, Arizona, was about to close. It was located next to a dog track, which meant it was packed with 76 greyhounds, retired racers who’d long ago chased their last mechanical rabbit. If Susan, an Oakland native who now lives in Tracy, couldn’t take them in, the dogs might get left in the lurch.

“It’s hard,” Susan said while sitting in her living room last week, “but we’ve already got plenty here.”

Twelve pointy-nosed greyhounds lounged about Susan’s home. The dogs, who were born to chase and bred to sprint, enjoy a morning burst of excitement, and then, like sugar-crashing teens, sleep for fourteen hours a day. Susan, whose own children have already flown the coop, calls her pack of dogs “45 mph couch potatoes.”

Eleanor, an all-white fancy curled up in the corner, had shown potential when she won her first race on a Florida track two years ago. But then she mysteriously lost interest in the chase, chugged home in several races, and was declared a has-been by her owners at the tender age of eighteen months. Susan glanced at Eleanor’s racing file, took a look at the snoozer, and said, “As you can see, she pretty much started out of the gate fast, got bored, stopped, waved to the crowd, and said, ‘That’s enough for me.'”

Mocha-colored retiree For Shizzle chilled out in the kitchen. Big Red, Monkey Boy, Brutt, and Romeo (aka Horn Dog) all took turns strutting through the home to check out their visitor. Blue Moon, a fourteen-year-old with a chewed-up left hip, sauntered into the living room. The racing gate had snapped shut on her, Susan said. More than a decade later, the scar was still angry on the bones. “She won’t walk through anything narrow, like a dog door,” Susan said. “If she wants to get inside, she’ll let me know.”

In all, Susan estimates hundreds of greyhounds have passed through her home on their way to adopters, a link she jokingly refers to as “The Greyhound Underground Railroad.” Her group, Amazing Greys (AmazingGreysRetiredRacers.org), matches dogs with people.

Yet until they get picked up, the retired hounds relax in the suburban setting. Each morning around 5:00, the racing spirit stirs them awake. Like human sprinters, they arise restless, ready to stretch their hinds, and anxious to let it rip. Instant chaos in Susan’s backyard is always a moment away.

“You can’t let them go all at once,” Susan said. “They get too competitive. No one wants to be last.”

The first hint of Susan’s obsession is the sign on her fence. It shows the outline of a greyhound’s body in full stride and reads, “I can make it to the fence in three seconds. Can you?” The next is the greyhound doormat on the porch, which is accompanied by the greyhound planters and the greyhound mobile that hangs in the window.

Inside, there’s a greyhound figurine riding a Harley. A bronzed greyhound bust rests on the coffee table. Above the couch, a framed black-and-white photograph of a greyhound posing on a couch. In the kitchen, a greyhound tapestry adorns one wall; there’s the greyhound wineglass, wherein the lengthy dog wraps around the stem. Don’t forget the greyhound dinner plate. Aso, the bottle of fine cognac topped off with, yes, a gold-plated greyhound.

Today, Susan wears a blue T-shirt that reads, “Greyhounds Rock!” Eighteen years ago she worked as a nuclear chemist. It was challenging stuff, but not particularly rewarding. “It was great,” she said, “but money isn’t everything.”

She got her first greyhound, Peaches, and heard all about the gruesome tales from the track. Dogs pumped up on speed. Cuts stitched together on the fly. Broken legs snapped in two. Dogs put down on site.

Susan later visited a racetrack to see it for herself. “If you’ve never been, it’s like NASCAR,” she said. “The first turn is a killer. If they’re going to pile up and break a leg, that’s when it happens.” Simply put, the thought of greyhounds used up and spit out pissed her off. “So I became a vigilante,” she said. “And it was nuts from there on out. I became an absolute fanatic.”

Fans flocked to racetracks in the early part of the 20th century. The first American greyhound track opened in Emeryville in 1919. And though unpopular with locals, the East Bay track was a catalyst, according to an account from the American Greyhound Track Operators Association. “Although this track was not very successful,” the account read, “it paved the way for the development of the greyhound racing industry in America.”

During the sport’s heyday in the Roaring Twenties, small monkeys saddled atop the dogs on Southern California tracks. In Florida, where the sport is still taken very seriously, aggressive tendencies were bred out of the dogs — otherwise the starting line would resemble a cockfight — but they were injected with steroids and performance-enhancing drugs to speed up the action.

If greyhounds are born fast and healthy they can race up to five years. The elite are later enshrined in the Greyhound Hall of Fame in Abilene, Kansas. But the majority of the estimated 26,000 racers putter out and end up useless to the bettors who still support a $2 billion industry, according to the American Greyhound Council, an industry-funded research group.

Dog racing is now banned in California, and only thirteen states currently allow it. The industry has since attempted to dampen the bad publicity it earned from animal-rights groups. Now, in an attempt to appease critics, many tracks have set up on-site adoption programs. The industry’s goal, according to the Greyhound Council, is to “achieve 100 percent placement of all greyhounds eligible for adoption by 2007.”

In the meantime, kennels continue to fill up with retired greyhounds. Even though dogs haven’t chased the bunny in California for more than a quarter century, they still arrive here from the South and the East Coast, via rescue groups in Kansas, New Mexico, and Arizona. When they fill their kennels, they keep moving westward to groups like Susan’s Amazing Greys, one of a few in the Bay Area. She takes the dogs, and in return, the dogs take to her.

“It fills a void,” she said of herself and her group’s members. “We’re all over fifty, the kids are out of the house, and we needed something to do.”

Taking in a former champ has its drawbacks, Susan said. The female racers have been so juiced up on steroids that, as soon as they’re off the drug, they go into heat something fierce. “So we spay them as soon as we get them,” she said, raising an eyebrow to indicate the lustful mayhem that would otherwise ensue.

Every once in a while she catches her dogs attempting to demonstrate their speed in her backyard, but its confines are too small and they can never really let it stretch out. A greyhound is a sprinter at heart, a runner in need of open field.

When the call arrived from Tucson last week asking if she’d take on several more greyhounds, Susan had to decline. She taken in seven a week earlier from a transporter in Sacramento. Adopters hadn’t yet arrived to relieve her. She had the dogs, but not the space. “If I had more room,” she said, “I’d take ’em in.”


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