Track Marks

Going into the red with the greyhounds

The six dog has been doom for me lately. Two nights before Halloween, I had easy money on San Tan Mischief in the second, a two-to-one favorite. But the six dog, Golden Lady, got tangled up in the pack on the first turn, wiped out, and took San Tan with her. It was as ugly as a NASCAR crash.

This unfortunate performance was recorded in subsequent Phoenix Greyhound Park racing programs as "Oop."

In my case, a $50 Oop.

Tristar Stormy, winner.
Paolo Vescia
Tristar Stormy, winner.

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"I'm gonna shoot me that dog, or somebody," said a man pacing the pavement trackside, talking to no one. "And I got me the four-five to do it."

I gave him space. That's easy to do at the track. It's a good place to be alone. I've been spending a lot of time there lately. For a while late this summer, it was like I'd found my calling. I was picking winners like cherries. It was like I virtually anointed the victors' foreheads whenever I punched their numbers into one of Greyhound Park's dozens of whirring, calculating Automatrix wagering terminals.

There's dog racing seven nights a week in Phoenix, with Thursday matinees. Post time for the first race is 7:30 p.m. Lately, I've been pulling up to the grandstand bar around 7, when they show the replays of the previous night's races. Also, the simulcast bettors are still in a flurry that time of night, howling exhortations at screens broadcasting greyhound races from eight cities across the South. These are gamblers, men and women, who stop off at the track between work and home to put money on races in Birmingham, Alabama, and Jacksonville, Florida. A lot of them look like they're betting more than they can comfortably afford to lose.

Which you might just as well do, if you're going to bet on dogs.

I've been losing a lot, though. A lot for me, anyway. I'm down $180 in four visits over three weeks. I keep a careful count on how often I go to the track, and how much I'm up or down, counting Bud Lights, White Russians and popcorn. If my winnings don't cover my Bud Lights, White Russians and popcorn, I count myself a loser for the night.

I've sworn to myself that if I ever get 500 bucks down, I'm going to eat the loss and never bet on the dogs again. I'll just go and vicelessly marvel at their speed and grace. But that's not going to happen, because I never stay down long, and I've never been down this far.

I'm willing to admit I have a problem. Not a gambling problem, though. A six dog problem. Win, place, show, quinella, trifecta, perfecta, it matters not. Lady Luck bitch-slaps me every time I put money on the six. So I've decided to simply never bet on any six, in any combination. Tonight, I'm convinced my luck is due for a correction. Tonight, I'm thinking like a day trader.

There are two levels to the Phoenix Greyhound Park: grandstand, which carries a $1.50 entrance fee, and clubhouse, which costs three bucks, and requires men to wear collared shirts. I'm a grandstand man. I like to go outside, trackside, and hear the paws on the dirt. Wednesday through Saturday, the grandstand-level bartender is Jim, who has worked at the Greyhound Park since 1977. Before that, he tended bar at the Flame Lounge in Fairbanks, Alaska, infamous for drunken patrons freezing to death as they stumbled home in the never-ending darkness of winter. Jim wears the same shirt as always -- black, short-sleeved, with a tropical bird print. I ask how the track's looking.

"The service guys say it's like walking on tits," he says.

This means it's soft. Phoenix Greyhound Park's racetrack was resurfaced in mid-October with 2,800 tons of mixed clay and sand. Before then, the older, harder track favored rail runners and early speed dogs -- ones who got out in front early and held on. The come-from-behind hounds never quite seemed to get the late wheels they needed to eke out the win. Since the resurfacing, more dogs in midtrack positions have been winning, and more are closing to win.

Tonight, I like Macho Man in the first race. He's the biggest dog in the running at 77 pounds, and he's been finishing in the money. I put 10 bucks on him across the board -- win, place or show. Macho Man jostles like a hockey defenseman on the turns and barely misses second place. Macho Man's handler unmuzzles him and puts him on a leash. Tongue lolling, heaving for breath, ribs taut against his flanks, Macho Man is led from the arena. No one gives him a high five.

The Bible says, "There be three things which have a stately step: A lion, which is the strongest among beasts and turneth not away for any; a greyhound; and a king, against whom there is no one to rise up" (Proverbs 30:29-31). Notice how the greyhound's stately step is the only of the three -- lion, greyhound, king -- which needs no explanation. The lines on a greyhound are as exquisite as a Ferrari. Egyptian Pharaohs revered greyhounds.

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