How did greyhound racing survive in West Virginia—and how long can it last?
By Ashley Stimpson
At around noon on an overcast Saturday in January, the clubhouse that overlooks the dog track at Wheeling Island Hotel and Casino is beginning to show signs of life. The TVs have all been flipped on, horses galloping across their tiny screens, while a yellow-haired women in a blue apron stocks bags of chips behind the concession stand. Meanwhile, spectators are starting to trickle in, racing programs folded under their arms. Lots of them have gray hair; nearly all of them are clad in a cotton/poly blend.
Eddie Walker is one of the early birds. A 66-year-old in a Ford hat and a flannel shirt, he’s been coming to the track for nearly fifty years. His dad was partial to horses but took Eddie to watch he greyhounds run a couple times a month during his teenage years. When Eddie met his wife Cheryl back in 2004, their first date was at the movies—their second was at the dog track. Cheryl says she got hooked on the sport immediately. “I like that there’s no human involvement, no jockeys,” the 64-year-old says. “It’s just the dogs out there, doing their thing.”
Today, Eddie and Cheryl have driven two hours from their home in Columbus, Ohio, to enjoy one of their favorite pastimes—and to introduce it to a first timer, their grandson, Riley Trembley. As the 14-year-old studies today’s program, he tells me he’s making wagers based on stats, not coat colors or cute names. “I’m in it to win it,” he says decisively, his cheeks still red from the cold.
It’s not an ideal time to get into greyhound racing. In 2018, voters in Florida, for decades ground zero of the sport, passed an amendment to ban racing there after 2020, striking what many thought would be its death knell. Since then, tracks in Iowa, Alabama, and Texas have all shut down. With the closure of Arkansas’ Southland track at the end of 2022, West Virginia is now home to the last two dog tracks in the United States—the one here in Wheeling as well as Mardi Gras Casino and Resort outside of Charleston.
Yet even as tracks around the country flickered out, the West Virginia legislature has shown a convincing unwillingness to scrap the sport, which employs some 1,700 people in the state. On the first weekend of the year, I came to learn more about state of racing here—and to ascertain how long it can last.
It’s 1pm when we stand for the national anthem. By now, the room is half-full of people gripping plastic cups of beer and saran-wrapped sandwiches. Behind the track, a barge pushes containers of coal up the Ohio River and a lone shaft of sun probes the skyline of Wheeling, like a spotlight searching for life.
By the time the men put their hats back on, Jill Spicer, a trainer at Xtreme Racing Kennel, has been awake for about ten hours. On race days, Spicer is up by 3am and in the kennel by 4:30. Once there, she turns out the dogs—she’s up to 84 since inheriting 32 “new little recruits” from Arkansas’ recently shuttered track—cleans beds, clips nails, pours breakfast, and weighs the hounds scheduled to race that day.
I greet Spicer when she pulls into the parking lot behind the paddock, quickly filling up with identical white dog trailers. As a cow-colored greyhound jumps out of one the truck’s compartments, muzzled and twitchy with excitement, Spicer points to its purple leash and her purple sweatshirt. “We may not be the fastest kennel here, but we’re the most coordinated,” she hollers over to where I’m standing at the fence line.
From the parking lot, the trainers—each with anywhere from four to seven dogs in-hand—make their way inside the paddock for weigh-ins. Some of the dogs are here today for “schooling,” practice races that demonstrate they’re ready for the big leagues.
Between schooling and the 1pm post time, Spicer sits down in the clubhouse with me. She’s wearing blue eyeliner and her thick hair in a braid. A couple tables over, a father tells his three sons to look at the camera. “First time at the dog track!” he announces as he snaps their photo.
At 56, Spicer has been in the greyhound industry for nearly forty years. She got her start at a track in Plainfield, Connecticut, where she spent summers working as a lead-out, walking the dogs from the paddock to the starting blocks before each race. Soon, she was working in the kennels, a job that took her to tracks in Alabama and all over South Florida.
The way Spicer describes it, life in a dog trainer is relentless. Thirty years ago, when she went into labor with her son Alex, she finished schooling the greyhounds before driving herself to the hospital. Three days later, she was back at the kennel, newborn in tow. “He has always had a dog beside him,” she says. On holidays, the family “opened our presents after the dogs had gone to bed.” And yet, Spicer insists working with the dogs is so fun, so rewarding, “it’s not even a job.”
But today, jobs like Spicer’s are close to extinction. After the vote in the Florida— “something we never thought was going to happen,” Spicer says—she was one of the lucky trainers who found work in West Virginia. Her son, now a trainer at a different kennel in Wheeling, was another.
“It’s an honor to be able to race here,” she says, “a real blessing.” Spicer hasn’t been here long, but she thinks the track is good for the Wheeling area, just as the track in her Connecticut hometown provided jobs and something to do on a Saturday afternoon. “Father, uncle, brother—everyone here has a connection,” she says, pointing around the room. “It’s nice to have a dog track in a small town.”
Indeed, according to a 2014 West Virginia University study, greyhound racing in Ohio County contributed about $18 million to the local economy, generating approximately $214 thousand in county taxes.
If Spicer is worried racing could end in West Virginia anytime soon, she isn’t letting on. Her grandson, who she pays five dollars a day to help out with the dogs, has already declared his intention to get into the family business. “The other day he said, ‘Nana, I want to be a kennel owner,’” she tells me, positively beaming.
Wheeling Island transitioned from horseracing to dog racing and 1976 and there’s one simple reason why it still exists here today.
In 2007, the state passed legislation law that said casinos could only offer table games and video lottery machines so long as they operated a dog or horse track. The Lottery Racetrack Table Games Act also established the West Virginia Greyhound Development Breeding Fund, which pulls about 1.5 percent of video lottery revenue (around $15 million each year) to subsidize kennel and breeding operations.
In the years since—as gaming revenue swelled and attendance at the dog racing withered—efforts have been made to decouple the two. The company that owns West Virginia’s remaining tracks, Delaware North, is in favor of these efforts, telling West Virginia Public Broadcasting, “We would support it if legislation passed that would allow us to operate the casinos without operating racing.”
In 2017, the legislature came close to doing just that, passing Senate Bill 437, which would have eliminated the Fund and allowed casinos to operate without live racing. But Governor Jim Justice vetoed it, saying in a statement, “If we get rid of greyhound racing it will mean job losses and fewer people coming to West Virginia. We can’t turn our back on communities like Wheeling that benefit from dog racing.”
Six years later, Chris Grieb, a trainer at McMillon Kennel in Cross Lanes, argues that West Virginia’s monopoly on live racing should be considered an asset. “We have the only tracks in the country and people still like wagering,” he says, “we’d be stupid to shut it down.”
The people Grieb is referring to are mostly out-of-state betters, who wager their money online and via simulcast outlets, sitting in smoky casinos in Las Vegas, for example. On a Saturday afternoon like the one I spent in Wheeling, the handle—the total amount of money wagered on the dogs—typically exceeds a million dollars. It’s a healthy number but only the track benefits from bets placed online or in casinos outside of West Virginia; the state does not collect tax on it.
Grieb arrived in West Virginia last summer, after the track he was working at in Iowa closed for good. The 52-year-old got a late start in the industry, when his first greyhound, a red dog named Sequoia, inspired him to get involved in the sport. In 2006, Grieb, a former high school football coach, moved from California to Florida to work in a kennel. Since then he’s raised and raced dogs in Kansas, Arkansas, Iowa, and now West Virginia. “I have one of 25 jobs left in the country,” he says about his role as a trainer.
Grieb admits there’s a feeling he’s come to the end of the line in West Virginia. While some of his colleagues are holding out hope for another decade of racing, he’s banking only on another two or three. “Breeding is going way down,” he says, “that makes things very difficult.”
If racing ends, Grieb will miss the dogs the most. “I just love them so much,” he says. “When you dedicate yourself to their wellbeing and see them come off the track after kicking ass, how much joy they have, that’s what it’s all about.”
Back in Wheeling, by the time half of the day’s twenty races are in the books, a flurry of losing bets litter the table that Matthew Rose and his friend Michael are sharing.
“We’re running about even,” Rose reports. The men, who work together at Akron’s Northfield Park horse track, have been meaning to come bet on the dogs for months, and finally got a Saturday off. “It’s relaxation for us.”
“There’s still a market out there for dog racing,” Michael, who didn’t want to share his last name, adds, “they’re going to handle a lot of money today,” he says, before heading to the cashier to spend some more of his.
A few tables down, Les Geiger taps a pencil against his program and fingers a stack of crisp dollar bills. The septuagenarian and his wife made the three-hour drive this morning from Springfield, Ohio. “The wife had some days off; thought we’d get away from the house.” Geiger says he likes the track for the atmosphere—and the payouts. “I can’t believe the prices they pay.”
As we watched the 11th race of the afternoon—clinched by a yellow dog in the 8 jacket—Geiger tells me the casino hotel’s 151 rooms were all booked for the weekend, so his wife, a hospital nurse, was taking a nap in the couple’s truck. When racing is done for the day, they’ll check into their hotel and have a nice dinner out, he says.
Proponents of racing point to visitors like the Geigers, Matthew and Michael, Eddie and Cheryl—people who wouldn’t otherwise come spend their money in Wheeling—as compelling reasons to keep the sport around. But for every seat in this clubhouse that’s taken, another one sits empty.
A Saturday afternoon at the dog track means spending a few hours at the surreal intersection of the past and future, where the air still holds memories of decades-old cigarettes and kids smile for a picture in a place they may not recognize a few years from now.
But none of that seems to bother Riley Trembley, who waves goodbye as he and his grandparents head toward the exit. The teenager proudly boasts that he won on four out of the ten races he bet on. When I ask if he’ll be back, he doesn’t say a word, just nods his head with an emphatic yes.