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Although he had never seen greyhounds run, Smith was called upon to organize a coursing meet to promote Hot Springs' generally ignored attractions. Around the turn of the century, coursing was a popular Sunday afternoon entertainment in the Midwest, a farm country adaptation of old English greyhound coursing. Two owners matched their dogs in each event. The park was a quarter-mile expanse of fenced-in prairie, and a handler, known as the slipper, held the two dogs on a leash at one end of it. A jackrabbit was released some distance in front of them, and when the rabbit had built up a lead of about 200 feet the leash was slipped and the dogs took off after it.
"When the dogs got it, the rabbit screamed like a baby," says Murray Kemp, who is now the president and general manager of the Multnomah Kennel Club track in Portland, Ore. and was once Owen Smith's bookkeeper, chauffeur and confidential assistant. "It really sounds quite a bit like a child's scream." A ruddy-cheeked individual with spiky white hair, Kemp has spent half a century around dog tracks and is an expert on crowd psychology. He is highly regarded in the business because he once drew more than 30,000 spectators to his track, the biggest crowd in the history of American greyhound racing. Kemp says Smith began to think of some way to eliminate the cruelty in coursing, the feature of the sport that tended to hold the crowds down.
Searching for information on how to run the meet, Smith met a bar owner named George Sawyer. A large jovial farm boy, Sawyer was described as a man who "liked the thrill of wagering, liked money and knew how to get it and how to keep it." He was a natural promoter, with a large store of jokes which he told with a stutter. History has failed to preserve any of these hilarious anecdotes, but to judge from the way Sawyer persuaded otherwise prudent small-town citizens to invest in dog tracks, he must have practically convulsed them with laughter first. In any event, under Sawyer's guidance, Smith organized the coursing meet and it drew a large crowd.
This caused Smith to begin thinking of a series of meets, an organized national greyhound racing circuit with regularly scheduled events like major league baseball. Sawyer drew back from the idea and returned to California, where he operated a bar and nightclub and, later on, a boxing arena. Meanwhile, Smith went from one coursing meet to another, trying to drum up support for his greyhound racing league, but he could not find any takers.
By 1907 Smith was at Salt Lake City, experimenting with dragging a dummy rabbit behind a motorcycle. His attempts to convince greyhound owners, a skeptical breed at best, that their dogs would chase a fake rabbit as enthusiastically as they chased real rabbits were not entirely successful. What he did not realize was that greyhound owners did not want to learn anything of the sort; their reaction was akin to that of a lover who is given proof that his sweetheart is false to him and who is consequently angry at the person supplying the information. The owners seemed to feel Smith had publicly exposed a flaw in their beloved animals, something they might have suspected but which they did not admit to themselves.
Sawyer, who was in the chips now, agreed to give Smith some financial backing, and in 1910 the inventor secured a patent for the Inanimate Hare Conveyor, the first of some 40 patents he took out in connection with greyhound racing. Then, in Houston, Smith met and married Hannah Kummings, one of 12 children of an Indiana farmer. About that same time Smith made the acquaintance of Tom Keen, a young self-taught electrical mechanic. With Keen's assistance Smith built a small straight track for his mechanical rabbit. The track was buried in a ditch. An overhead arm, projecting through a slot, carried the rabbit down the course. The experiment failed. "As I understand it, water seeped into the ditch and short-circuited the equipment," says Kemp.
"We were church-mouse poor," says Edward Smith, the inventor's son, "but somehow my father would always find food. He was marvelous with his hands. He invented a window-locking device, but he was 50 years ahead of his time on that one. When we lived in New Orleans he invented a lid-locking garbage can. He sold the patent for $100 to get some food in the house. The man who bought it made a lot of money, but he was very good about it. My father loved cigars, and this man would often hand my father a 50� cigar, which was quite a good one in those days, all wrapped up in a $100 bill."
Encouraged by such unexpected generosity, Smith again set out to buttonhole greyhound owners. But with his neatly inconspicuous dress, his quiet air, the thin mustache that made him look like a riverboat gambler and his shortage of funds, he suggested a confidence man rather than an inventor. He would have had a hard time selling U.S. Treasury notes, let alone stock in a patented rabbit.
It was not until 1919, or 14 years after his great idea first came to him, that Smith at last had a chance to make a full-scale test of his device. George Sawyer's boxing arena in Oakland was being torn down, and Sawyer was willing to move the lumber to property he owned in Emeryville. There it was used to build a grandstand for a dog track. Sawyer and Smith organized the Blue Star Amusement Company, secured the backing of a few Oakland businessmen and planned an expenditure of some $10,000.
Sawyer was now the owner of vine-yards, which in those early days of Prohibition was a good or a bad thing, depending on how one regarded the law. The dog track meant far less to him than it did to Smith. Costs mounted to more than $40,000. "Right after the war it was hard to get equipment," says Frank R. Anderson, Sawyer's nephew who was later president of the Miami Beach Kennel Club. "Rails, for example, to carry the motor that drew the rabbit. We had to use different-sized rails, some eight-pound rails, some 13-pound. The mechanism was a huge thing. It weighed 1,600 pounds—1,600 pounds of machinery to carry a one-pound rabbit. It jumped the rails."