116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DUBUQUE — There was a time when traffic jams were caused by cars either arriving or leaving what was then called Dubuque Greyhound Park.
“If you were in a certain lane when you were leaving and lived in Dubuque,” Mike Brannon of Dubuque recalled, “you’d be forced to go to Wisconsin and then turn around to go home.”
That was when the track averaged 2,856 customers per racing program in 1985, its initial season. The opening night had a crowd of 4,249, including Gov. Terry Branstad. Before one of that evening’s races, young men in white tuxedos led the greyhounds to the starting box.
“There used to be a fancy restaurant here in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with carpeted floors and white tablecloths and waitresses and waiters.” Brannon said.
Brannon and a lot of other people were here last Wednesday night at what is now called The Iowa Greyhound Park, part of Q Casino. Racing seasons here used to go from early spring to November, but it’s just a truncated, monthlong 2022 season that ends Sunday afternoon. Then, greyhound racing will be done in Iowa for good.
The track’s seating area was filled last Wednesday night, even with a 5:30 p.m. starting time for the racing. A lot of people who hadn’t been to the track in a long time came back for one last visit, one last trifecta box.
“Nostalgia,” said Brannon.
“If it had this support, it would never have to close,” said Dubuque’s Kris Fair. Her mother, Diana Fettkether, has worked at the track since 1989.
This was inevitable. After this year, only two tracks in the nation will remain open. Both are in West Virginia. Not enough dogs would be available for Dubuque’s track to sustain operations. Many of Dubuque’s dogs had raced in Florida in the winter, but in 2018 Floridians voted by a whopping margin to outlaw wagering on greyhound races.
Florida had long been the hub of the industry. There were about 60 dog tracks in the U.S. when Iowa legalized parimutuel racing and the Dubuque facility opened. Florida had 11 open just a few years ago.
Animal-safety concerns brought the matter to a vote. But greyhound racing began dying a slow death as other forms of gambling were legalized in Iowa and across the nation.
The Dubuque track was eventually allowed to add slot machines, then the facility became a full-fledged casino. A vivid example Wednesday of how different things are gambling-wise in 2022 compared to 1985 was seen on a casino TV screen here.
An ESPN program had a graphic showing the betting odds on that night’s Pittsburgh Penguins-New York Rangers NHL game. You could have wagered on that contest here, at the casino’s sportsbook. Or, you could have stayed home and used your phone to place a legal bet.
In 1985, the Dubuque greyhound track was the sole place for legal gambling in Iowa. Then dog tracks opened in Waterloo and Council Bluffs. Horse racing track Prairie Meadows opened in 1989. Then gambling on riverboats began. The boats eventually were replaced by brick-and-mortar casinos. Legal sports betting started in 2019.
But greyhound racing was a big darn deal here for a while. Dubuque’s economy was in the tank in 1985. The city got into the dog track business, and it was a gamble that paid off. Out-of-towners came to town.
Many arrived in chartered buses from Illinois and Wisconsin to bet on dogs running up to 45 mph for just over 30 seconds.
You may not be able to imagine such a thing if you have’t attended a dog race. You may not be able to fathom a public-address announcer saying “Let’s meet the athletes” as the dogs are walked on the track to the starting box.
“Here comes Julien!” the announcer will shout for the last time here Sunday as the mechanical bone-shaped lure circles the track and eight greyhounds are released to pursue it. The lure is named in honor of Julien Dubuque, one of the first settlers of this area.
The original Julien is long gone. Soon enough, his namesake will be as well.
“It’s the end of an era,” said Brannon, who liked the Dubuque track for another reason.
“I adopted a greyhound from here. I loved having it as a pet. It would run in the yard for 45 seconds and lay on the couch for 23 hours.”
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