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Family raises winning greyhounds on farm

May 2, 2010

DES MOINES - Their dogs weren't worth the cost of their food, and their daughter would need medication just to function.

On paper, the experts were right.

No one else wanted the first greyhound of unheralded breeding that Gary and Bev Reicherts took in. And few people could imagine the constant care required for Angie, their mentally disabled daughter, who was deprived of oxygen at birth, was unable to read or write and who suffered from wild episodes because of a bipolar disorder.

Article Photos

In this photo, Bev and Gary Reicherts operate O-Ya Greyhounds on their rural Osage farm, in Osage, Iowa. They raise about 40 greyhounds on the farm and have found that the dogs have a stabilizing effect on their daughter, Angie, who has bipolar disorder.

But on the recent opening day of Dubuque Greyhound Park, the Reichertses planned to cheer the unwanted greyhound's grandson who had become a champion, alongside a daughter who no longer needed medication.

It's more than a hunch that Angie and the dogs got better around each other.

"I don't know if ... we can't see what she sees. Maybe she has insight," said Joann Nelson, Bev's sister, who gave them that first dog. "Every litter she picks out one favorite. And every dog she picks is best in the litter, money-wise."

The rewards transcend money, which is the focus of most conversations these days regarding a dismal greyhound racing industry. It escaped death in Iowa when state legislators last session wouldn't let gambling casinos kill the sport they subsidize.

Here on the Reicherts farm near Osage, the dogs that are talked to, led and fed by Angie have given back.

"They calm her," Gary Reicherts said. "That's why the dogs have been so good to us."

A dog named Thunder charges across the barnyard and leaps up to Angie's arms.

"He likes to give hugs," Angie said.

There were days that all this bounding joy didn't seem possible.

Gary and Bev Reicherts bought this farm in brighter days in 1981, when the farm economy was bustling and they didn't yet know the depth of their toddler daughter's problems.

On 4,000 acres they raised cattle, hogs and row crops. But the farm crisis hit, then the industry changed. Gary would need large-scale livestock confinements to compete.

At the same time, Angie's problems deepened. She was placed in special education after kindergarten, but even then her parents noticed more issues.

They tried to join neighborhood gatherings, but she would be disruptive. One day she would be "going 100 mph," and the next sullenly slumping in her chair.

"One day, Bev took her in the car and she was uncontrollable, kicking and screaming and grabbing the steering wheel," Gary said. "It got to the point where we had to physically restrain her. I thought I was dealing with the devil. Her voice would even change lower. I would be crying. Bev would be crying. Angie would be crying."

Finally, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on medication.

Angie would wander out to the barnyard and talk to the cows, which stared at her blankly.

Then one day Bev's sister, Joann Nelson, called.

Nelson has been involved with greyhound racing since its beginnings in Iowa in the 1980s.

She told Bev of a dog in her kennel, a brood bitch she had no room for and no one wanted.

"There was something about this dog that was different," Nelson said. "I said she had the look of eagles. You look in her eyes, and she looks into your soul."

The Reichertses adopted the dog and named her Sissy. Bev took Angie to pick up the dog. "She fell in love that day," Bev said.

Gary soon decided the farm needed a different direction than livestock. He read up on greyhounds and found a male greyhound of so little regard his owners would breed Sissy for free.

Sixty-two days later, in a makeshift box in their kitchen, the Reichertses watched in awe as Sissy gave birth to 10 pups.

Angie spotted one pup right away and named it Thunderfoot, the first of her favorite dogs.

Experts said he and the other pups wouldn't amount to anything.

But every night, the Reichertses took a golf cart out on their land and the dogs chased it, Angie howling and calling "Oh yeah, Thunderfoot!"

"They would jump into a big sawdust pile and leap off, kind of like ordinary dogs," Gary said.

The dogs gained strength and at 1 year old were sent to Oklahoma to be trained.

By the next August at Dubuque Greyhound Park, the dogs each had a new name, prefaced with Angie's call, "O Ya."

O Ya Thunderfoot won his first race Aug. 5, 2004, on Angie's birthday.

"The dog had never won," Nelson said. "This just seemed out of our hands."

Angie became easier to manage and was taken off her medication.

"It changed Angie's life," Nelson said. "She would hardly go out the door before, and now she has come out of her shell. I think God told me to give them this dog."

Angie spends part of her day now at Comprehensive Systems in Charles City, where people with special needs work and play.

Arriving home at 2:30 p.m., she charges out to the kennels.

The 40 of the family's 100 dogs that aren't with trainers or in racing kennels live here and are waiting to be fed. They burst up and down the 650-foot runs, about three times the size of any suburban backyard, heads low and legs churning as they reach 45 mph.

Angie points out "O Ya Elvis" and "O Ya Dolly," the tiny pups born five days before that she named for her love of music.

New buildings have been constructed with money from the dogs' winnings. The floors are heated, and barely a hint of animal smell drifts in them. Huge chunks of meat are plopped in front of the dogs as Angie mixes a milk cocktail laced with vitamins and minerals.

As Angie talks of the dogs, she smiles slightly and tears fill her eyes.

Thunderfoot died last November, and she still calls out his name. But there are others now that need her attention.

Resting her palm on its shoulder, she calms one dog that is shaking because of a storm brewing on the horizon.

"I had the first litter of their pups," said former trainer Kathy Walbrun of Dubuque. "They were so gentle and people-friendly. Angie is a big part of that. If you see them around Angie, she knows their personalities. Dogs have a sixth sense for that."

Breeders and people who raise greyhounds have long disputed the assertion that the sport is cruel.

"A lot of people think of them as puppy mills," said Jill Paxton, bureau chief for horse and dog breeding with the Iowa Department of Agriculture. "But you don't create a future racer by keeping them cooped up in a kennel."

As the Reichertses' dogs - handled at the track by Nelson's Clayton Black Kennel - won more races, Angie became known, and patrons called out to her.

The stands are emptier these days. The amount of betting has decreased from $41.6 million in 1985 to $2 million in 2008. A casino that was added to the facility in 1995 has taken over the clubhouse, shrinking inside seating to just 400, said Brian Carpenter, director of racing.

The Reichertses feared greyhound racing might die when Harrah's Entertainment, the company that owns Iowa's other greyhound track in Council Bluffs, lobbied legislators to end subsidies of what they argued is a dying industry.

But greyhound racing persevered, and so have the Reichertses. They've learned that the discounted can always make a rally.

Last year, the grandson of Sissy, the dog no one wanted, won the $75,000 World Classic in Miami, Fla.

O Ya Tom Terrific was to race again soon, with Angie cheering him on.

"Our dogs gave us back more than we could ever give them," Gary said.


Information from: The Des Moines Register,

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.



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