[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.
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.)
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.