The first trial of the day is about to begin. Three whippets tug against their leashes, dragging their handlers a few steps forward, a few steps sideways.
The handlers—mostly dog owners or their friends or relatives—chat amicably, seemingly unaware of the straining dogs.
Then comes the call to the starting line. The three sleek whippets are led into place.
This is the ancient sport of lure coursing, which thrives in New Jersey during the warmer months. Once the stuff of royalty, lure coursing today is staged by clubs for owners of sight hounds—hunting breeds that rely on speed and sight to catch their prey. In competition, the dogs chase a plastic lure through a man-made course that tests their speed, agility, endurance, enthusiasm, and ability to follow the darting lure.
On this rainy spring day at a Lehigh Valley Coursing Club trial at the Hunterdon County Fairgrounds in Ringoes, about 60 dogs across nine breeds are raring to run.
At the starting line, the paddock master makes sure the three whippets are on deck and ready for their turn.
“Tally ho!” the hunt master shouts. Three white plastic bags begin dancing in view of the dogs. These lures (or “bunnies”) are dragged through a charted course at up to 40 miles per hour by a motorized pulley system. The course has been laid out in a pattern that simulates the zigzag path of fleeing prey.
The handlers unleash the whippets and the dogs dash off in hot pursuit of their plastic game. Heads low, noses forward, hind legs kicking up tufts of grass, the dogs run straight, make a wide right arc across the open meadow, navigate two more turns, then cut a sharp left into the straightaway toward the finish line.
Two minutes later, the dogs, having covered 600 to 1,000 yards, triumphantly shake the plastic bags in their clenched teeth. The crowd cheers—and the judge jots notes on a clipboard tucked into the crook of his arm. The whippets leave the field and a trio of Borzoi prepares to run.
“Lure coursing is a wonderful activity for sight hounds,” says Chris Coen of Flemington, who, along with his wife, Robin, races three Irish wolfhounds. “This is a sport that shows the form and function of these dogs,” he says. “It’s what they were meant to do.”
Murals depicting coursing—swift hounds pursuing game—have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back 4,000 years. At that time, it was a sport enjoyed by Pharaohs and royalty as well as a means of providing food and eliminating predators. In this country, the spread of farming to the grasslands of the West necessitated the coursing of jack rabbits and coyotes. By the late 1800s, coursing shifted from a hunting practice to a sport using live prey.
Today, lure coursing is practiced strictly as a sport—without live game. Courses are arranged in fields of 5 acres or more, with 90-degree turns, straightaways, and crossovers. The events are sanctioned by the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the American Sighthound Field Association (ASFA), and all competing dogs must be purebred and registered with the AKC or a similar organization.
The ranks of lure-coursing hounds include plenty of show dogs—and show-biz dogs. The Coens have watched two of their Irish wolfhounds perform at the Metropolitan Opera in Lucia di Lammermoor, an Italian drama tragico that would suffer greatly without the presence of two essential canine characters. The dogs have also appeared in print advertisements for Ralph Lauren and were used as props in a recent Men’s Vogue photo spread.
New Jersey dog clubs stage an active schedule of AKC- and ASFA-sanctioned lure-coursing events. There are seven New Jersey-based ASFA clubs, some with colorful names, like the Glassboro-based Jersey Rag Racers Whippet Association.
“The culture of the field is very appealing,” says Sally Fineburg, who lives and works near Princeton. Along with her Rhodesian ridgebacks, she has been involved in the sport for twelve years and is training to be a lure-coursing judge.
“There are people whom I’ve known for years through lure coursing, but I have no idea what they do for a living,” she says. “When we come out, we talk about our dogs. It’s such a departure from the daily grind.” For the dogs, chasing plastic bags could become a grind, one supposes, but not any time soon.
Dara-Lyn Shrager is a journalist and poet living in Princeton.