Running with the big dogs

But kennel owner Maria Beck didn't always have her day

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Chandrika M. Jones
While most people are enjoying the last hours of a good night’s rest, Maria Beck is up feeding her “children” — all 60 of them. As the owner of the Lightning Ridge Kennel in Kansas City, Kansas, she rises every morning at 4:30 to prepare her four-legged employees for their day at the races. Beck not only breeds and trains champion greyhounds, she is the only known African American woman kennel owner in the business.

Her interest in dog racing surfaced when her parents began taking her to the racetrack. She was eight. “I would go to the children’s matinees on Saturdays,” says Beck, 40. “The animals are so graceful. The excitement of seeing them race took my heart and I realized that it was what I wanted to do.”

Her dreams of owning a kennel were temporarily shattered in 1980 when she lost her father to cancer. Still, she continued going to the track. “It was good therapy,” she recalls. A few years later, Beck learned she was expecting triplets. Tragically, she suffered a miscarriage and lost all three babies.

To help ease her pain, friends gave her three greyhounds-one for each little one she lost. It was then that she made up her mind. She would make her dream a reality. In 1990, she took the six classes the National Greyhound Association requires for apprenticeship as a trainer and split a two-week internship between two Kansas kennels.

Her first industry job came two years later at Dennis Ryder Kennel, where she started as an assistant trainer. She made $300 for a six-and-a-half-day workweek. Three years later, she took a trainer position with the kennel that would eventually become Lightning Ridge. In 1996, nine months into her gig, the owner encouraged her to take over. “He was going through some financial woes and was trying to eliminate some of his bookings,” she recounts. “He asked if I would consider buying him out.”

Though she had no money, she jumped at the opportunity. They hammered out an agreement in which she would pay him 10% of each week’s winnings for the rest of the meet. In exchange, he would leave her half of his hounds-22 dogs-when it was over. “You have to have at least 45 dogs in your kennel to be considered active,” she explains.

Business was slow for the rest of the year, with revenues somewhere between $60,000 and $86,000. When it was over, she sought guidance from C. Don Godby, who owned some of the dogs in her kennel. He gave her more than good advice. “He gave me bowls, dog food, blankets-everything I needed,” she says. He also filled out the rest of her kennel-out of sheer kindness. “In this business, someone always has their hand out,” she says. “But he took me under his wing and supported me when I had nothing.”

Business picked up, and 1998 saw revenues nearly double to $140,000. This year, Lightning Ridge brought in about $240,000. Beck has since hired two assistants to help her

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