Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Night The Chief Got Bitten

[Inspiration for this story - or, actually, for jogging my memory concerning it - goes to Cleary Squared. In his comment on my previous piece concerning found money, he mentioned an unfortunate loss at a dog track. And it brought to mind the following story from my own life.]

Once upon a time, in The Commonwealth Of Massachusetts, there was greyhound racing. Wonderful specimens of canine aerodynamic evolution sped around a 5/16 mile track in pursuit of a mechanical rabbit. Meanwhile, many humans cheered them on in this endeavor. Most of the humans had wagered in some way or another on the outcome of the races.

The dogs enjoyed running. The humans enjoyed watching them. The owners of the dogs made a living. The owners of the racetracks enjoyed the profits gained from sponsoring this spectacle. The Commonwealth Of Massachusetts also enjoyed the profits, having made itself a partner with the racetrack owners (the way extortionists often do). Everybody was happy.

No, scratch that. Some humans, who had no stake in the enterprise, were not happy. They felt that the greyhounds were being exploited. They strove to ban greyhound racing in The Commonwealth Of Massachusetts. And, lo and behold, they were successful (because if you were a voter otherwise uninterested in greyhound racing, probably never having even touched a greyhound in real life, and you saw ads with a sad greyhound face asking you to vote "Yes" on Question 3, human nature being what it is...)

Well, I only wanted to let you know, as prelude to a tale, that greyhound racing once existed in my state. It wasn't my intention to sermonize. But, as long as I've started, I may as well let 'er rip.

The intent of the folks who wanted to ban racing was sincere. They wished to save greyhounds from destruction and mistreatment. Hey, it would be a hardhearted bastard who wouldn't want that. Greyhounds are lovely dogs, in general. Those I encountered at the track - that is, those I had a chance to pet and say "Hello, big fella! You gonna make me some money tonight? Yes, you are! Yes, you are!", while I scritched him behind the ear - were beautiful animals.

I never saw a dog being mistreated in any way, shape, or form. Now, that isn't to say that the greyhounds were always unfailingly well-cared-for and lived a life of ease, nibbling ribeyes between races while watching Rin Tin Tin reruns from the comfort of a king-size bed. I'm a realist. I guarantee that somewhere in the bowels of every dog track there were some miserable pricks who beat the animals, didn't feed them enough, or otherwise maltreated them. And I would gladly see anyone of that ilk skewered and barbecued, perhaps even fed to the same dogs they hadn't treated well. These were working animals, though, and sometimes, in order to get animals to work the way you desire, a little force has to be applied. Hell, I know I wouldn't go to work each day if I didn't have threats of some sort hanging over my head.

Be that as it may - or, as it was - greyhound racing is no longer legal in Massachusetts. Some of what this accomplished:

* Thousands of people lost their jobs

* Those greyhounds who weren't valuable enough to ship out-of-state to other tracks were put up for adoption. Many were not adopted. Many were euthanized (which is a genteel way of saying they were KILLED.)

* Last, and least, folks like me, who enjoyed going to the track and betting on the pooches, were left with lots of free time. We took up blogging. And we've been a nuisance ever since.

I could go on - and so could the folks on the other side, with cogent arguments for why they feel it was a net gain - but we'd probably all be better served if I just got on with the story, so I will.

The two main characters in this vignette, dressed far more nattily than they were on the night in question.

It was a summer evening in 1979. My Dad and I decided that spending it in the company of dogs would be enjoyable. So we drove to the second-largest greyhound track in Massachusetts. We drove to Raynham.

(The largest track was a joint called Wonderland, located in Revere. We had nothing in particular against Wonderland, but we preferred Raynham. As tracks go, Raynham was a bit more relaxed. At Raynham it was easier to convince yourself that you were a country squire enjoying a bit of frivolous sport. Wonderland had far too many wiseguys hanging around to ever let yourself be deluded in that way. You had to drive to Raynham, and along the way you passed open spaces that might be farms. You took the subway to Wonderland, and along the way you passed the time with winos. And since the winos were also going to the track, it didn't leave you much room to convince yourself that you were any less of a degenerate than they were. All in all, a trip to Raynham was better for the ego.)

After arriving at the track, we paid our admission and bought a program. Then we found ourselves a spot to sit down and get on with the business of handicapping the night's races. Our favorite place to go was a row of cafe tables just a few feet from the hamburger stand. That way, we could load our arteries with meat and cheese and salt when we weren't loading our lungs with smoke. We made room for that additional ballast by tossing money overboard.

(Nah, not really. Well, OK, yeah, really. But not as bad as I made it sound. Our expenditures for gambling were within reason. If you averaged out the money we lost over the course of a year, it wouldn't have compared unfavorably with what other people might spend on more mundane entertainments such as movies and concerts. That we still went to the movies and concerts tells you we could afford the gambling. And we didn't cultivate other vices, such as drinking, so we were ahead of the game there.)

(I should add, for those who have followed me for a while and who are now wondering about my copious drug usage, I smoked pot in those days and that was about it. Maybe an occasional tab of acid, but the point is my bill for such stuff ran to about 40 bucks a month for a decent lid of dope, and then only if I wasn't dealing a bit on the side and getting it for free. Enough talk about finances, though.)

So, to set the scene for what transpired next, we were sitting comfortably at a small table amid 125 or 150 other folks doing the same in that area of the track. We had consumed a couple of hamburgers each, had lost maybe ten bucks apiece on the evening thus far - nothing too bad - and had our tickets in hand for the sixth race of the evening. We had both bet on the number 7 dog to win. He was going off at 12 - 1, so we were looking to get into the black if we won this race. The dogs were loaded into the starting gate. The track announcer exclaimed...

"Here comes The Chief!"

(It should be noted, for those who have never had the pleasure of an evening at the dog track, that a mechanical rabbit is used to entice the dogs to run. The "rabbit" is a piece of machinery that moves along the inner rail of the track, kept a few feet ahead of the lead dog at all times.

Most mechanical rabbits - racing lures, that is - are nicknamed in some way. Each track has it's own. At Wonderland, the rabbit's name was Swifty. At Seabrook Greyhound Park, the mechanical lure was Yankee. At Raynham, it was The Chief. And that's how the track announcer began every call of a race, by saying, with bated breath, that the lure was underway. As soon as it passed the starting gate, the dogs would be released to chase after it.

For a wonderful history of the lures used at various tracks, and the names given them, go to All About Greyhounds.)

[This is not what The Chief looked like, but the orange thing is the lure. Greyhounds will pretty much chase anything, whether or not it looks like a rabbit. The Chief was white and could be mistaken for a rabbit if you were very drunk and somewhat nearsighted.]

The Chief whizzed by the starting gate and the doors sprung open. The dogs came flying out. And our dog, number 7, went to an early lead, cutting in along the rail. It looked good for us. He wasn't particularly a speed dog, one that went out to an early lead and then fell back to the pack near the end while other dogs went galloping by his used up form, so, with an early lead, he might win by six or seven lengths, easy. Visions of a profitable night danced in our heads.

And then the damnedest thing happened. On the first turn, our dog lurched forward at an angle toward the rail, then he BOUNCED sideways, rolled a couple of times, and came to a rest on the backstretch just past the first turn. Every other dog in the race passed him by.

"What the hell was that?", My Dad asked.

"Damned if I know", I said.

Our dog got to his feet, shook his head once as if to clear it, then took off in pursuit again. It was over, though. There's no recovering from a fall in a greyhound race that takes only 30 seconds or so to complete.

Well, that was that. Time to start handicapping the next race. We crumpled up our tickets and threw them to the floor.

Meanwhile, there was an unusual buzz in the air. People were talking excitedly. I found what they were saying hard to believe, so I turned my attention to the replay monitor on the wall, which was showing the race just run. And there I saw something I had never before seen, have never seen since, and likely (since there's no more greyhound racing in Massachusetts) will never see again.

Number 7, our dog, had CAUGHT the lure.

I never did learn if it was a temporary mechanical failure, or if the lure operator had just been napping a bit and let the thing slow down too much, but our dog had actually gotten close enough to the lure to try to take a chomp from The Chief's little bunny butt. Then, physics being what they are, his little leap, combined with contacting the lure at approximately 40 mph, sent him bouncing sideways.

I told My Dad to look at the replay. He did. And, before the track announcer got on the horn to state it, My Dad realized what would happen. He said, "It's going to be declared 'no race'. Grab every ticket you can find, quick!"

We first retrieved our own two from under the table. Then, as we were beginning to rummage around in the filth and dirt on the floor for more live tickets, the announcement was made over the loudspeaker and the scramble was on all over the facility. Everybody was looking for free money. Many were on their hands and knees scooping up old tickets (along with hot dog wrappers, used cigarette butts, and God only knows what else.) We were among them. Those who had ripped up their tickets instead of crumpling them let loose wails of pain.

We collected $78 in tickets. It made our night. We went home ahead. We felt that, since it was our dog that had caught the lure, we probably deserved at least that much.

I like to think that number 7 was given an extra-special doggy treat when he got back to the kennel; perhaps a carton of deluxe Milk Bones and the uncut version of "Lassie Does Wonderland". After all, he had accomplished a singular feat. In reality, though, he was probably ruined as a racer. He now knew that there was no profit in catching The Chief. He likely hung at the back of the pack from then on, wearing a bemused smile and waiting to see if anyone else fell for the scam. And his grandpups probably didn't believe him when he told them the story.

Soon, with more bettor stuff.


joeh said...

I think the argument against racing is when the dogs stop winning they are useless and mistreated or euthanized. It is hard to give them or adopt them away because they are so ugly.

They are built to run. THey love to run. THey are miserable if not allowed to run. They would not exist if they didn't run. So of course dog lovers stopped the racing, they can't run and the breed will not exist in the future.

Unintended consequences!

Great story as usual.

Ami said...

Gotta zip out the door to chase my own mechanical bunny but wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed this.

We have a now-defunct greyhound park/track just up the street.

Cricket said...

"Hello, big fella! You gonna make me some money tonight? Yes, you are! Yes, you are!"


"Come play the favorite... Wonderla-and" C'mon, sing it! I know you remember it too.

Michelle H. said...

You do look quite "nattily" in your suits :-)

I heard about greyhound racing, and the complaints about it from certain factions. Usually they said that the greyhounds were killed once their racing days are over. I don't know if that were ever true.

Never gambled in my entire life. Only played the lotto once or twice. Never caught the craze of that either. If people do it for entertainment, I can understand completely the appeal. But to obsessively throw away money thinking they will hit the Big One, I just don't understand.

Great story! Your luck is ever present to be someone to see a greyhound catch the lure, ever.

Suldog said...

Cricket - Yup. And it brings to mind another more subtle reason for my preferring Raynham. They had an ad (the lyric was nothing special - "Go greyhound racing at Raynham Park, Greyhound racing at Raynham Park..." ad infinitum) and the background music included some snare drumming that my pre-teen musical soul, for whatever reason, loved. Probably just a loud press roll or something, but I turned up the ad every time it came on. Odd the things we latch onto.

Craig said...

No dog racing in Michigan, so I've never particularly had to think about the arguments for or against. . .

My main misgivings with regard to gambling more generally, pertain to its tendency to bring other vices in its wake (Mt. Pleasant, MI was a sleepy college town until a huge casino opened there, and virtually overnight, the hooker population of Mt. P quintupled. . .), and my general sense that it ends up exploiting the folks who can least afford it. But I don't know if those misgivings rise all the way to the level of 'this is an outrage that must be stopped!' or not. . .

Do the successful dogs get put out to stud, the way successful racehorses do? 'Cuz that's not, you know, such a bad end. . .

Suldog said...

Joe, Michelle, Craig - The dogs (rightly, dogs and bitches, since "dog" is a male term) meet different ends. The most successful are, as Craig suggested, used to produce future racers, much the same as racehorses are bred. Those whose racing days are done, but are not considered valuable enough to keep around in some way by a trainer/owner, are made pets, via adoptions, or euthanized.

I no more like seeing a dog killed than anyone else might, but that's the life of working animals in general. Once there is no more "use" to be extracted, they are mostly done for.

The questions to wrestle with are:

1) If the existence of racing makes for more greyhounds being born.

2) If so, is it a good or bad thing for a pup to be born, considering the life and death that looms ahead for it.

Intelligent folk can debate these questions for a long time without necessarily finding agreement. My beefs with shutting down the racetracks are enumerated in the post. Most obvious, to me, is that the dogs the proponents seemed to care about (that is, the racers current at the time) were the ones immediately affect in an adverse way. More became redundant when the law was passed than would have become so had the tracks remained open. The net gain of greyhounds saved over time could be argued, but another argument could be made to counter that by saying that these supposed greyhounds would never be born at all. So...

Barbara said...

I enjoyed all of this, but especially the image of #7 with that bemused look on his face, waiting for someone else to fall for it. His grandpups rolling their eyes and snickering at his stories is a close 2nd. Thank you for this!

Uncle Skip, said...

I've been to the dog races. The first time was in the early '60s, when I was stationed at San Diego. A bunch of us caught the bus... yeah, Greyhound... to Tijuana where they had both the horses and greyhounds. I think the lure was called Harvey. Anyhow, we didn't go so much to gamble, as we did to drink. Since we were all underage, we couldn't drink in California, but it wasn't an issue in Mexico. The track at Caliente was a lot classier than most of the clubs in Tijuana, particularly if you had passes to the Jockey Club.
Winnings, if any, were always minimal. First off, we didn't have much to bet with and, secondly, none of us knew anything about handicapping.
The only other time I've been to the track was in Bradenton, FL. That was because the people I was with were going.
I've always kind of admired greyhounds. I never considered them in the category of working dogs. But that's just because my first contact with a working dog was one that was a guide dog for a visually impaired person. It is difficult to reconcile greyhounds leading blind folks.

Buck said...

It's GOOD to go home ahead, especially when you witness something that's never been done before.

I note with interest the photo of you and your Dad is titled "DadMeThailand21." You went to Thailand with your FATHER? (I'll say no more.) ;-)

Karen said...

There was a greyhound track in Yuma in the late 70's that we'd visit. Lots of fun. It's been closed for years, but I think there are still tracks in Phx and Tucson. Loved the line "We took up blogging. And we've been a nuisance ever since." Ha!

Jimmy said...

Excellent story Jim, I am sure his grand pups sit and smile as he repeats the story, and like my grand son and kids, they do not believe a word

Chris@Knucklehead! said...

Great story . . . reminds me of the Bugs Bunny episode where Bugs falls in love with the lure. Anyway, really enjoyed this, including the brilliant tag, "more bettor stuff."

IT (aka Ivan Toblog) said...

I'm sure there's some way to make a comment about this blog going to the dogs

Kerry said...

IT: haha!

Yeah I think you raise some good points, and this was a very funny story. Lucky #7! I bet everybody who was there that day remembers it.

Stephen Hayes said...

So maybe the moral here for we humans is there's no point in trying to find the end of the rainbow. The chase is everything.

Hilary said...

You think I'd have seen that coming.. given the post title and all, but I did not. Very cool story. And as always, very well told.

Paul Mashburn said...

Awesome story! I've wondered if that ever happened.

My experience comes from trips to Daytona, where the call was, "Here comes Lucky!"

Kat said...

Haha! I love this story! Oh the stories you tell.

I never really understood what people were so uptight about dog racing for. Why is it any worse than horse races? I don't get it. I would imagine the dogs were treated pretty well because an unhealthy or unhappy dog probably wouldn't run as well. Whatever. People are crazy.

Cleary Squared said...

Thanks, Suldog...yeah, every time my uncle comes up from Virginia he tells that story.

RTGP was usually our go-to track when it was open, but my brothers wanted to go at the last night it was open in December 2009. Unfortunately, there was a blizzard, so we ended up not going.

I never liked greyhound racing anyway - too fast for my blood. I won the occasional quinella or exacta, but nothing earth-shattering.

Daryl said...

even tho technically this is a sport related post, i loved it

Craig said...

I was thinking of the same Bugs Bunny 'toon as the Knucklehead. . .

lime said...

i love the idea of the retired granddog sitting with his granpups around him regaling them with tales of taking a bite out of chief!

Mich said...

Sounds like a good night! I don't think greyhound racing is any worse than horse racing, and that's still allowed. :/ I miss they days when Mum and stepdad both still had awesome jobs, and we used to go down to the Meadowlands races and visit stepdad's horse. Even more fun was riding that horse after she retired.

Race horses are utter psychopaths. Super fun.


SueAnn Lommler said...

Great story for sure. Never heard of a dog catching the lure...too funny

Jenn Flynn-Shon said...

I ended up at Suffolk Downs once in my life and found it kind of boring actually. So because of that I never made it to any greyhound racing. It always made me laugh though that Mass was so against gambling (ahhh no casinos! That stuff is for people in CT!) but they'd let the dog & pony show(s) occur. Pun intended. Best pizza in Boston is on the beach just up the road from Wonderland.

messymimi said...

To quote a friend of mine, "Well, if that don't just beat all!"

Shammickite said...

I've never been to a greyhound race track, and probably never will. I have no idea where the nearest track is.
A few years ago I went to my cousin;s wedding which took place in an old wooden church in a Pioneer Village. He hired a part time minister to do the job. The minister turned out to be quite a character. I sat with her after the wedding and she told me that she only did weddings and funerals as a sideline to make a bit of cash.... what she was really interested in was saving greyhounds from the horrors of the race track! I think she had a dozen or more of the animals at home.

Val said...

Greyhound racing is cruel and inhumane. Greyhounds endure lives of nearly constant confinement, kept in cages barely large enough for them to stand up or turn around. While racing, many dogs suffer and die from injuries including broken legs, paralysis, and cardiac arrest. And many greyhounds are euthanized every year, as the number retired from racing exceeds the number of adoptive homes.

At racetracks across the country, greyhounds endure lives of confinement. According to industry statements, greyhounds are generally confined in their cages for approximately 20 hours per day. They live inside warehouse-style kennels in stacked cages that are barely large enough to stand up or turn around. Generally, shredded paper or carpet remnants are used as bedding.

An undercover video recently released by GREY2K USA shows the conditions in which these gentle dogs are forced to live: http://www.grey2kusa.org/azVideo.html

For more information on injuries these dogs suffer, please view:



Dogs play an important role in our lives and deserve to be protected from industries and individuals that do them harm.

V Wolf Board Member, GREY2K USA

Suldog said...

Val - Thank you for the counterpoint. That you delivered it in a gentle manner is appreciated.

I don't claim to know everything there is to know about greyhounds or greyhound racing. I can say, however, that I've toured the kennels of a couple of tracks and not found the conditions you describe. That doesn't preclude them existing, of course, but it also makes little sense to keep racing animals confined to a space wherein muscles can atrophy, so I don't expect those conditions exist in the majority of places. Just my take, extrapolating from what I've seen and from a logical view of the profit motive.

I also, in easily over 500 trips to the track, encompassing some 4500 - 6000 viewings of races, which included between 32000 and 50000 entrants, never saw a dog break a leg in a race. I realize my sample is small in comparison to what happens yearly nationwide.

Anyway, thanks again for the polite discourse.

Tara said...

You are spot on Kat

Tara said...

In all do respect G2K is a radical animal activist group. They do not give true facts. Greyhounds do not spend 20 hours in a crate. They are athletes, that wouldn't help them be a top athlete. They eat a healthy diet, get exercise, many turnouts with their kennel mates.But above all lots of love from the people that work with them everyday. I could go on. The adoption rate is like 96% the others go home to retire with their peers even trainers, some go on to have pups before retirement. Greyhounds make great pets. Racing is only banned in 1 state, betting on them is not allowed in some states. The greyhound industry is full of people that dedicate their lives to this amazing breed. This was a great story, thank you for sharing.