SI Vault
Robert Cantwell
August 27, 1973
No harebrained scheme, inventor Owen Smith's mechanical bunny put greyhound racing on the track, helped the Feds nab Al Capone and is one reason the dogs are America's best bet
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 27, 1973

Run, Rabbit, Run

No harebrained scheme, inventor Owen Smith's mechanical bunny put greyhound racing on the track, helped the Feds nab Al Capone and is one reason the dogs are America's best bet

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5

When it was at last ready to operate, there was another crisis: the greyhound owners refused to cooperate. "They said the mechanical rabbit would spoil their dogs," Anderson says. "They said, 'These dogs are valuable, worth as much as $25 or $30.' It makes you laugh to think of that now." But enough owners went along to permit the track to open in 1919 with some 500 spectators on hand. "The rabbit jumped the track often," said Anderson. "Since the dogs had no muzzles in those days, they'd tear it all to hell."

Horrified, the owners said the dogs would never chase again after learning how they had been deceived. Smith explained that the greyhound is born to run, that its pleasure in life is to get out and run and that it will chase anything that moves away from it.

The issue, at Emeryville anyway, was soon enough rendered moot because betting was not allowed, and the meager admissions could not pay off the $40,000 debt. After a few weeks the partners closed the track and moved to Tulsa where betting was unofficially permitted. Smith himself would have nothing to do with wagering because he was still dreaming of greyhound racing as a great mass entertainment. He was also concerned about charges of fixed races by disgruntled owners and disappointed bettors. "He was always trying to prevent accusations of skulduggery," says his son Edward. "Things like rubber bands around a dog's toes, pebbles or cinders between the toes, the dogs being watered just before a race and, of course, doping. My father instituted many of the precautions to dog racing that are now standard in horse racing as well—and horse racing was wide open in those days. I understand the receiving barn, for instance, grew out of his idea of the receiving kennel where the dogs were kept before a race. The starting gate evolved from the starting boxes used in dog races. There were no precedents for such things in those days, and he had to work them out by himself as he went along."

The Tulsa meet lasted from mid-October to Thanksgiving 1920, then Sawyer and Smith hurried to East St. Louis, Ill., where they quickly built a $100,000 track, largely financed by local businessmen. For the first time in his life Smith emerged as a public figure. He was now 52 years old, and the East St. Louis Daily Journal described him as a hospitable person. He personally welcomed visitors to the track before it opened and tirelessly explained the workings of his "electrical rabbit, which was invented to do away with the actual killing of rabbits."

Opening day in East St. Louis was Oct. 12, 1921 with perfect weather, Holton's Band playing and 4,000 paying customers on hand. Until the track closed on Thanksgiving, the average daily attendance was 2,000. Unfortunately, that was not enough. Shortly thereafter the track went bankrupt. The local businessmen were stuck for $100,000 in losses but Smith and Sawyer had long since sold their interests and departed for Miami.

Al Capone's downfall began when Smith met Marty Hyland, a commission merchant in the produce business in St. Louis. Then 43, Hyland had once sold vegetables from a handcart, and in searching for status symbols to go with his new wealth he had imported some expensive greyhounds from England. Through his interest in dogs he met Smith and eventually joined Sawyer to back him in the building of a track in an area of Florida called Humbuggus, later known as Hialeah.

Among Hyland's associates was a 27-year-old lawyer named Edward O'Hare, or Artful Eddie. O'Hare subsequently became famous in two ways—for being part of Capone's crowd and for fathering Edward Henry O'Hare, the World War II Naval hero for whom the world's busiest airport is named. Handsome and cultivated and an excellent boxer, Artful Eddie began to serve as the lawyer for the track builders in patent infringement suits.

By 1925 Smith was dashing around the country installing lures as though he feared Hyland's money might go out of style. From Hialeah Smith hustled to Erlanger, Ky., across from Cincinnati. Then, back to Florida and on to New Orleans. Later that year Hialeah introduced night racing, the innovation, along with the mechanized lure, that really made the sport. Says Edward Smith: "The success was found in night racing, in not trying to compete with the horses. Running at night appealed to a working-class audience."

The night racing at Hialeah also led to contacts with some distinctively non-working people in Palm Beach, who in turn were prominent in starting greyhound racing in England. This proved to be a tremendous success, although of almost no benefit to Smith. The first English track opened in Manchester in July 1926, and within two years there were 68 tracks operating or under construction throughout the British Isles. However, with his characteristic carelessness about his patents—and his reluctance to sail on a ship for fear of being drowned—Smith virtually gave away his British patent rights.

Perhaps he was too possessed by his hope of a great chain of American tracks to care much about what was happening. He took charge of constructing new ones in Milwaukee and Butte, Mont, and the $150,000 Madison Kennel Club near East St. Louis. Dog racing was so profitable that Hyland just gave his commission produce business away to two of his employees. And, alas for Capone, Hyland also induced Artful Eddie O'Hare to try his hand at the dog track business.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5
Related Topics
John Braham 1 0 0
Havana Capone 1 0 0
George Sawyer 1 0 0
Edward Smith 1 0 0
Edward O'Hare 1 0 0