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Track Marks

Tristar Stormy, winner.
Paolo Vescia

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.

"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.

Greyhounds run 40 to 50 mph in a pack. Humans first used them to hunt down other animals for food. Now, we use them for entertainment. The encyclopedia says it was Queen Elizabeth who organized the first greyhound "coursings," back in Shakespeare's time. Greyhound racing is now legal in 18 American states, including Arizona, where the Phoenix Greyhound Park has operated since 1959.

But the rush I get from betting on greyhound racing is tempered (though too subtly to speak highly of my moral character when it comes to animal rights) by the diversion's dark side: 20,000 to 25,000 healthy greyhounds a year put to death by their breeders, culling the stock. According to both sides, that gruesome number is declining under pressure from animal-cruelty protesters and adoption agencies such as Arizona Adopt-a-Greyhound. Many nights at Phoenix Greyhound Park, ADAG volunteers stand just inside the entrance (and just next to the track's ATM) with recently retired racers who, unless adopted, will soon be "retired" in the Blade Runner sense of the word.

In terms of disposition, greyhounds are, in a word, chill. Docile, friendly works of selective breeding art who spend most of their lives in kennels, with human interaction limited to training and handling. Grateful for any attention, they make lousy watchdogs, but play fetch at 40 mph.

I'm still $160 down. I'm putting $30 on Miss Mischief in the second. She's 58 pounds and barely a year old. She hasn't placed higher than third in her last six races, but this bitch can turn and burn. On October 9, she covered the 550-meter oval course in 31.2 seconds, the fastest personal-best time of any dog in this race. Miss Mischief takes second in a photo finish, losing to the favorite, Ole Get Down. At this point, I'm still barely covering my bets and my beers. But I see an opening in the odds on the third race with a dog called Yankee Blue. He's got the fastest recent times of any dog in the race, but no one's going for him because he hasn't been winning lately and just got downgraded from C class to D class. I think he's due, and I'm right. Yankee Blue smokes the field like his Gettysburg namesakes, and now I'm only down $110.

One of the reasons I like betting on greyhounds so much is I'm betting against the judgments of other people, instead of the house. Quick French lesson. Parimutuel: "Betting between ourselves." The odds adjust according to how many people across the country put money on a certain dog. If you pick a good dog that most others don't, you win more money and demonstrate your superiority.

Of course, if you lose a lot of money, you feel like a dumb ass, like I do dropping 30 bucks in the third on Silver Foxylady (betting names rarely works; I know this, but sometimes I can't help myself).

Then I start to listen to Jim, and I start to win. Here's the deal with Jim: He's worked at the track for 22 years. If he gets good tips, sometimes he gives good tips in return. He calls RD's Spare Rib in the fourth and Jaded Joker in the fifth. Then, in the sixth race, Jim says he's all about the six dog: Midnight Cut. I tell him my thing with six dogs. Jim shrugs like he's heard that kind of shit before.

"Come on, Mr. Lucky," he says. "Go to the window and find out for sure."

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: dholthouse@newtimes.com


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