It was probably a bigger long shot than Clay over Liston, the Jets over the Colts, USA hockey to beat Russia or even The Ultimate Warrior stunning Hulk Hogan in Wrestlemania VI.
By all odds it was incredibly improbable. He was a brash, outspoken, thirty-three-year-old former New Yorker moving to conservative Iowa. Eighteen years in New York; then a dozen more in Miami, which really is the same as New York without the Long Island Expressway and galoshes, followed by two out in Tucson, Arizona. If he were an athlete following this path and sent to Iowa, he was one step away from being waived. Instead, this move in 1985 was part of his ultimate career plan.
He had been in the pari-mutuel racing business for eleven years establishing a little bit of a name for himself. After graduating in ‘74 from college in Miami and miserable writing for a small newspaper for two months, he got a call from the general manager at Hollywood Dog Track in Hallandale, FL, about 20 miles up I-95 from home. Hollywood was looking for a publicity manager and he was recommended by a college classmate. He knew all about greyhound racing, jai-alai and horse racing. He easily could have majored in them if such a curriculum was offered at the U. Instead, his racetrack experience usually was an empty wallet and a call to his parents whining he needed more money for books. They saw right through that.
If the $1,000 a month salary wasn’t tempting enough, Hollywood officials told him he would work seven months a year. The track operated for four months, late December till mid-April. Come in a couple of months before the racing season begins and stay for a month afterward. The other five he was told he could sit by the pool and wait for a phone call in case he was needed. He signed up for the gig on the spot.
He was twenty-two. The next oldest official in the Hollywood organization was sixty. He rose quickly through the ranks going from publicity director to PR chief and ultimately, four years later, to Assistant General Manager at the largest greyhound track in the country. He was the heir apparent to the top seat until new ownership bought the property, and he got cross with the managing partner. He said the guy was a crumb. The owner wanted to use the kid to say unkind things about his boss so they could get rid of him. Instead, the kid was forced out from what would have been the best job in the entire greyhound business.
A general manager position was offered to him at a struggling racetrack in Tucson. It was 1983. He was thirty-one, the youngest greyhound racing GM in the country. Being a New Yorker via Miami in Tucson was a lifestyle speeding ticket waiting to happen. On any given Tuesday in Tucson, a NYer was already on Wednesday; Tucsonans still on Monday. He needed to slow down and wait for the parade to catch up to him. It was also very important to learn that the ‘c’ came before the ‘s’ in Tucson. Most still don’t know that. He met resistance from the long time racetrack employees who just wanted to continue living their easy, non-challenged professional lifestyle. The first change he made was to take down the very unwelcoming sign at the track’s front entrance that said, “No knives, no guns, no weapons, no cameras.” No kidding. When was the last time an Instamatic was used in an assault?
In his two years in the desert some progress was made. Tucson Greyhound Park got an overhaul: not just lipstick on a pig but some mascara and eye shadow, too. Business got a little bit better. The owner, a sporting gentleman from Nashville, TN, via Green Bay, Wisconsin, was patient and appreciative. He was far from a crumb.
Then one afternoon in July 1984, about eighteen months after he arrived in Tucson, the phone rang. It was a member of a newly formed not-for-profit group in Dubuque, Iowa. He never heard of Dubuque, after all he was from New York, and spelled it ‘Debecue.’ He still has that slip of paper. The caller told him that Iowa had recently legalized pari-mutuel racing and the group in Dubuque was just granted a license to build a greyhound track. His name was given to the Dubuque racetrack board by a consulting company doing a feasibility study on the viability of the project.
He was invited to come for a visit and interview for the GM position. He knew nothing about Iowa. Who from the East Coast does? He was a big Superman fan as a kid but had no idea George Reeves was from Woolstock, Ia. So much for being born on Krypton. But he did realize professionally Iowa might give him an opportunity to achieve a career goal: to be able to design, build and staff a racetrack from the ground up.
Debecue, oops, Dubuque, in eastern Iowa on the Mississippi River, intersected with the northwestern corner of Illinois and southwest Wisconsin. There was a patch where you could be in all three states in about three little steps. The population of DBQ was 60,000 and declining. Major industries were farming, a meat packing plant and John Deere tractors. A solid meal was at The Ground Round, peanut shells on the floor. The best restaurant in town was Mario’s, whose namesake was also from New York. Theoretically, Mario’s car heading to California must have broken down in Eastern Iowa, so he stayed. Keeping warm in the frigid Iowa winter was an art. The temps made Norway in January seem tropical.
The community of Dubuque was awarded the first license in the state to build a racetrack. They saw it as an opportunity to boost employment and tourism. Or so they hoped. Four years earlier Dubuque, Iowa, had the highest unemployment rate in the country at 24%. Farm bankruptcies were rampant. Common was the expression, ‘The last one to leave Dubuque please turn out the lights.’ It was no coincidence the city had the highest per-capita rate of bars and taverns in the country. Dubuque, as long as it had jobs, was a work hard, play hard, kind of town.
Iowa’s statute called for three greyhound tracks and one horse racing facility, all to be non-profit. If the tracks made money, the net was to be distributed to local charities. In Dubuque, the residents were so hungry for a viable industry they were willing to mortgage their homes, in the form of increased property tax dollars in case of default, on the seven million dollar bond issue needed to build the facility. The racetrack would be owned by the city and managed by a not-for-profit racing association made up of twenty-one community leaders. The local referendum passed by a stunning 71%.
The now thirty-three-year-old kid from Tucson took the job but was really too young to understand the pressure on his organization. If the racetrack flops, ultimately so will the city and its property owners. He hired two of the best minds in the country, convincing them to come to DBQ, to run the racing and wagering side of things. They got the top concession company in the biz, too.
On June 1, 1985, Dubuque Greyhound Park was the first track to open in Iowa. A pretty facility, with a capacity of 6,500, was built on a picturesque island on the mighty Miss. Things started slowly. At first the line at the ice cream stand was twenty deep while the wagering windows were virtually empty. The mayor of Dubuque immediately called for more ice cream stands. Instead, the track realized it needed to educate the customers on how to wager.
Then magic happened. The Dubuque story, specifically the Dubuque Greyhound Park story, made national news in Newsweek, New York Times, CBS Evening News and The Wall Street Journal. It got fantastic regional coverage in Chicago, Milwaukee, Des Moines, St. Louis and Minneapolis. Chicago and Milwaukee were only about three hours away. Groups throughout the Midwest started booking day trips to town. On any given Saturday or Sunday up to fifty buses, each packed with fifty or more people, filled the track parking lot. All of a sudden, the betting windows were slammed; there was no wait anymore for ice cream. The mayor didn’t say a word.
Money was pouring in to the racetrack, the city’s hospitality industry and ultimately to area charities. Other than maybe a dozen key officials, almost all the staff of the three-hundred plus at Dubuque Greyhound Park were local. Over five thousand people applied for those positions in 1985. There is no finer work ethic in the country than Midwestern. Locally, the racetrack became beloved, and its employees were celebrities. Even Mario comped a chicken parm every now and again.
During the summer of 1988 on any given night you could find almost all the cast and crew of Field of Dreams wagering on the pups at DGP. The movie was being filmed twenty-five miles to the west in Dyersville, IA. Compared to nightlife in Dyersville, Dubuque was Paris; its tired Main Street the Champs-Elysees.
Other states viewed Dubuque’s success. Previously the closest greyhound track was in Arkansas; the closest horse tracks in Chicago and south in the Quad Cities. Council Bluffs opened racing greyhounds on the western edge of Iowa and did well. Waterloo, in north-central Iowa, raced in the winter with little success. Dubuque’s season from April to November was perfect for the community to capitalize on tourism dollars and hotel rooms before it got too cold.
Through its first five seasons of racing—1985-89–when the kid and his all-star team were there, a total of three million people wagered over $303 million. When you consider half of those came from over fifty miles away, the racetrack was a flat-out winner for Dubuque and what it meant for the area hospitality business. The kid defied the odds like Clay, the Jets, USA hockey and The Ultimate Warrior.
However, Dubuque Greyhound Park’s success in many ways was also it’s downfall. Soon racetracks were legalized in neighboring states, five of them in Wisconsin. Kansas also opened as did Texas. Many of Dubuque’s key employees were purged by competing states. In fact, so was the kid, who left in August 1989 to go to work for a group that had the license in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Kenosha, along with Geneva Lakes, were Dubuque’s closest competitors. It dried up the traffic from Chicago and Milwaukee with much closer racing options than a three to four hour bus or car ride to Iowa. One of Dubuque’s assistant GM’s went to manage Geneva Lakes, the other stayed to operate DGP. When all the carnage was over, eight members of the kid’s Dubuque staff became GMs or VPs of businesses elsewhere, both in the racing and hospitality industry. That’s the one thing the ex-New Yorker is most proud of in his career.
Soon casino gaming was introduced in Iowa; first on riverboats and then land based to offset the business lost to Wisconsin. Dubuque Greyhound Park is now a full-fledged casino called Mystique or just Q. Greyhound racing, dying across the country, has remained a part of the Dubuque casino complex on a very limited basis through all these years. A typical racing crowd is more like a Boy Scout jamboree. A midsized conference room can fit them all. Casino revenue helped keep racing afloat.
So what was once a strong, viable industry, not only in Dubuque but across the country is just about dead. In 1998 when the upstart kid was president of the national greyhound track operators association there were fifty racetracks operating in nineteen states. Florida’s once vibrant industry with eighteen tracks was shuttered by referendum last December. Until about 4 pm today, there are only four greyhound tracks still running in just three states.
This afternoon Dubuque will close for good. It was a great ride for thirty-seven years. But a combination of changing public tastes, the spread of more popular casino games and a well-financed strategy by the humaniacs, has virtually shut down the business, ending livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of good, honest workers. Arkansas’ lone greyhound track will close in December leaving only West Virginia’s two tracks to carry the flag for what once was a great, vibrant and for the most part, honest industry. West Virginia’s tracks can’t stand on their own and need casino monies to keep the doors open. It’s probably just a matter of time there, too.
The once young kid, now a seventy-year-old retiree in Las Vegas, will smile proudly today thinking about all the memories of that little racetrack in Iowa. It was doubted by so many but proved that staffed with great people and a community that really cared, it turned out to be the little racetrack that could.
Then he will shed a tear.