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At 15 minutes before midnight Saturday Ray Randle, a tall and taciturn greyhound man, stood woozily on the terrace of the executive wing of the Flagler Dog Track in Miami. None of the 8,700 fans at the track felt worse. Earlier that day Randle had been in bed with the flu, but, as he put it, "I' da come to the track tonight on a stretcher," for he had two starters, Copier and Discreetly, in the 12th and final event of the night, the $80,000 International Classic, the richest race in dogdom.
Randle stood quite still for the 37.44 seconds that it took eight of the best greyhounds in the country to cover 1,940 feet on the track at "Fabulous Flagler," and then suddenly he felt much better. Thanks to Discreetly, he now had a personal role in the pageantry of the awards ceremony that the fine Flagler minds had concocted. There was an actual script:
And there was Discreetly, a nice-enough-looking hound, panting happily under that fancy blanket, while all manner of beauty queens and tuxedoed gentry served as a backdrop.
Eighty thousand dollars may seem like a lot of money to lavish on a dog race, but not when the sport's soaring attendance and betting figures are considered. Last year admissions at the 34 tracks in seven states totaled a record $11 million plus, and the pari-mutuel handle was nearly half a billion dollars. In Florida the 16 greyhound tracks dominate pari-mutuel betting. In 1966 the state's dog tracks handled $255 million—$76 million more than the Thoroughbreds.
The sport is a modern one, but the breed is ancient. Excavations in Mesopotamia date the greyhound back to 5000 B.C. The breed is mentioned in the Bible (Proverbs 30: 29-31), by King Solomon who said, "There be three things which go well, yea...are comely in going:...a greyhound; an he goat also; and a king against whom there is no rising up." The pharaohs of Egypt used the greyhound to chase hares, and Rameses II and Cleopatra are supposed to have been among its dedicated fanciers. The Romans brought greyhounds to the British Isles, where the dogs became the special favorites of the aristocracy. Greyhounds were introduced into the U.S. in numbers in the 19th Century, when they were used to chase jackrabbits and coyotes on the plains, and Kansas still ranks today as the center of U.S. greyhound breeding.
For years coursing enthusiasts believed that greyhounds, which pursue their quarry by sight, would chase only live game, but in 1919 an Arkansas promoter named O. P. Smith devised a wheeled contraption that chugged around a track towing an artificial rabbit. The lure was first put into operation in Emeryville, Calif. The dogs went after it, but the track failed because betting was not allowed.
Smith went to Tulsa—betting was allowed there—and then he moved to Florida where a dog track was opened in 1922 at Hialeah on the site of the present horse track. Other dog tracks followed, including an opulent one built in Miami Beach by Tex Rickard. Smith, who died in 1929, never saw the Miami Beach track, even though he lived in Miami. A fortune teller once told him he would die crossing a body of water, and he refused to risk Biscayne Bay.
During the '20s dog-racing conditions were crude, and so were some of the enthusiasts, most notably Al Capone. Gangster interest in greyhounds gave the sport an unsavory air, and it took a long time for it to sanitize its image. "It's an unfair rap against greyhound racing," says one dogman. "Those guys were interested in a lot of things, including horses and fighters. But greyhound racing always got blamed."
In the '20s, tracks were put up with the understanding that public officials would look the other way—which made the very act of opening one a stimulating gamble. A 1926 Miami newspaper headline asked, BISCAYNE TRACK SCHEDULED TO OPEN TOMORROW? Biscayne did open, but only five of eight races were run the first day, because a big tomcat got tangled up in the motor of the lure.
If a sheriff did make a move to close down a track, the custom was for the operator to ask the judge for an immediate injunction against the action. The judge would grant the injunction, then take a vacation until the meet was over. Tracks often were raided. "It could get pretty perilous," says Bill Ewalt, long an owner-trainer. "In some towns you had to be faster than your dogs to get your kennel cages out of town ahead of the law. If you ran second, they had their own kind of cage for you." Another veteran owner, F. B. Stutz, says, "Dog racing used to be in disrepute. Before my daughter got married, she told her fianc�, 'Promise me you'll never go into the dog-racing business.' People actually were ashamed of being in it. I always felt like apologizing for it, myself." Now that dog racing has become, as its boosters call it, the sport of queens, Stutz, a thoughtful sort who reads Spinoza, William James and Chekhov, sort of hankers for the old days. "The camaraderie is gone today," he says. "It's a business, strictly a business."