Prix Dog Night

When gamblers gather and greyhounds gallop gracefully

The old cavalry signal of the charge. Shrill yelping and howls like canine genocide settle from behind the eight numbered gates, a blood-curdling sound that could haunt the uninitiated for hours. A mechanical lure--a diabolical, spurious rabbit--starts its loop around the oval track, sparks flying off the rail on which it rides.

Past the numbered gates, causing them to suddenly swing open, the lure hurls forth, pursued now by eight gracefully extended greyhounds agog on rabbit. A voice over the house system alerts of dog identification and post position in the indecipherable and jilted melody of a slow-mannered auctioneer. Hounds--bobbing heads, muzzled noses, rippling torsos--careen forward, rarely touching each other, fulfilling their most basic instinct to run, sometimes speeding upward of 40 miles per hour.

Just over 30 seconds later--one 550-yard loop of the oval track--the hounds cross the finish line and the lure disappears.

Had yet again, the hounds come to a dusted halt, vainly sniffing for hints of rabbit. Personal "lead-outs" (walkers) appear and attach leashes to each and walk them back to the kennel area where they are returned to individual crates.

The unseen voice gibberishly blurts out winners, placers and losers, and said results are placed on the giant tote board and various TV monitors throughout the stands. In that span of 30-something seconds, a race was run, and thousands of dollars were won and (mostly) lost.

All the highbrow/lowbrow betting pros in attendance--the cigar suckers, the elderly and those unlucky enough to be carrying their rent money--have something to murmur, something dour usually, when the race is up.

The few lucky ones crowd the parimutuel clerk windows to exchange bet receipts for cash.

From the beginning, the greyhound was held in high regard, as evidenced by glyphs etched on the walls of primeval Egyptian tombs and in art of the time. Pharaohs rated them their faves among all animals, both as pets and hunters.

Dog racing originated as a sport about B.C. 2500 in Egypt, something called coursing. Coursing remained popular throughout ancient times and during the Middle Ages (fifth to 15th centuries A.D.), and it was a sport of royalty in 16th-century England. Coursing competition was organized on a formal basis in Great Britain in the 18th century and in the United States in the 19th century.

Phoenix Greyhound Park at 40th Street and Washington has been around for more than 40 years and claims visits from nearly one million yearly. The park is open every night except Christmas.

Greyhound racing as a sport is waning in popularity, due, some say, to the rise of gaming casinos and the lottery. Others say the public awareness of the racing dogs' lot has pushed the sport southward. And greyhound racing is now legal in only 16 states, and is specifically banned in six.

On appearance, greyhound dog racing is a financially motivated sporting event that flourishes despite the exploitation of the animals involved.

In Arizona it is a felony to abuse a greyhound, yet it is legal to kill one so long as it is done in a "humane" way, and the carcass is disposed of properly.

Bill Rice, a lanky, salt-and-pepper-haired kennel owner and chairman of the legislative and liaison committee for the Arizona Greyhound Commission, says greyhounds are no longer killed unless they are seriously injured. All greyhounds, upon completion of their racing lives, are turned over to Arizona Adopt a Greyhound, an organization whose sole purpose is to find homes for the discarded dogs.

"Now you have a choice," he says. "Nobody gets rid of a greyhound unless it is absolutely necessary. In the old days we did. I've taken dogs to 35th Avenue, to the Humane Society to be put down, and sat there and cried like a damn baby. It was just as bad to me as takin' one of my kids. But all that has changed, and it is changin' nationwide. And it should be, 'cause man, they are beautiful pets."

The grandstand scene of the Greyhound Park is a more careworn blend of bus station, country club and roadside diner than it is hothouse gambling joint. Bars, restaurants, clubhouse (with dress code) and snack bar prop weary and anxious fortune-hunters greedy in the hope of easy riches.

The bets are similar to the horses: win, place, show, quinella, perfecta, trifecta, daily double, quinella double, twin trifecta, pic six, bet 3, etc. And modifying each bet are variables inherent to the dog's breeding and genetics: early speed, inside rush, first turn rush, late kicks, etc.

"It's a challenge to try and figure out in a race, or in a horse race with 12 horses, which one is gonna win," says Rice. "You have to study the program, you have to look at the kennels. Kennels tend to run hot and cold and so on. There's just a whole lot of factors involved, because we don't have jockeys on these guys. You have to be smarter than to just pull a slot [machine]."

An amiable clerk notes the cross section of people he sees unloading their wallets: "We have our serious gamblers, snowbirds, tourists, one-time gamblers and curiosity seekers. This place is like a painting looking out from this booth. It's gambling; it's an addiction like any other. Most of the retirees and old folks come in the winter and stay in the clubhouse and have dinner. They don't even really bet."

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