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
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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

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Smith had always insisted on a strict regulation of each race, doing so against increasingly impossible odds. As John Kobler wrote in his biography of Capone, "Nothing was easier than to rig a pari-mutuel race. Given eight entrants, for example, overfeeding seven of them by a couple of pounds of meat or running them a mile before the race would guarantee victory to the eighth dog."

These impossible odds came not from the workings of Smith's rabbit but from the new people in the business, notably Capone and any number of other hoodlums, big-time and two-bit alike. Bugs Moran and Adam Heyer (one of the hoods gunned down in the St. Valentine's Day massacre) had large dog track interests and so did almost every mob hanger-on.

In an expansive moment in Havana Capone once revealed to Cuban police that O'Hare was managing tracks for Johnny Patton, Greasy Thumb Jake Guzik, Frank Nitti and Al and his brother Ralph. But then O'Hare never made any secret of his business association with Capone, even if he always kept his social life apart from the mob.

In 1929 Frank Wilson, a top Treasury agent, was assigned to collect evidence of Capone's income tax evasions. Wilson made no progress in Chicago—no one there dared testify against Capone—but a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, John Rogers, put him in touch with O'Hare. After a week of brooding, O'Hare decided to provide Wilson with the material he needed. His motives were mixed. He considered himself a legitimate dog track operator increasingly drained by Capone; he believed he was going to be bumped off; and he wanted his son to win an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy.

Wilson reported that O'Hare's information was the single most important factor in the conviction of Capone. Typical of these leads was the case of Lou Shumway. He had been Capone's bookkeeper at his Cicero gambling headquarters. Searching for Shumway, Wilson found him at the most likely place—a Miami dog track. He was given the choice of informing on Capone's income or being publicly served with a subpoena. In the latter case Shumway stood a good chance of being killed to prevent him from testifying, so he directed Wilson to evidence of Capone's unreported income. In all, Wilson accumulated records to prove an income of $1,038,656 that Capone had not reported. It was very little by Al's standards but enough to convict him, put him in jail for 11 years and cost him a fine of $50,000. Thus did Owen Smith's mechanical rabbit bring down Public Enemy No. 1.

Before all this had transpired, Smith had died at the age of 58. "He was a very healthy man," his son Edward recalls. "He had the flu for three days and then passed away in his sleep. I never knew what happened." Hyland died two years later in 1929 after an operation for appendicitis and gallstones. These tragedies left O'Hare in a very advantageous position. "Eddie had practically no money at the time," Mrs. Hyland explained later, "but he was an exceptionally hard worker. He didn't drink, and he didn't smoke. When Marty died Eddie took over the race business."

O'Hare soon had a mansion in a Chicago suburb, a suite of rooms in the Illinois Athletic Club, an apartment in the clubhouse at a dog track and, perhaps most important, an inconspicuous basement hideout in downtown Chicago. As the date for Capone's release approached in 1939 O'Hare made some prudent new decisions. He took out $96,000 worth of life insurance and he announced he was retiring from the dog racing business. Eight days before Capone left Alcatraz, O'Hare was being driven down Ogden Avenue in Chicago when a shotgun blast from a passing car hit him in the head, killing him instantly.

The murder left George Sawyer and Tom Keen as the only survivors from the earliest period of greyhound racing. Sawyer died peacefully in 1947 at the age of 72 but Keen's fate was more typical. A portly, quiet, self-contained individual, Keen had no known enemies. He led a dual existence: according to some newspaper accounts he was a gambler, but he also operated a factory near San Mateo, Calif. where he manufactured a compact racetrack totalizer for dog races. Early in 1952 this usually imperturbable genius displayed unusual restlessness. He withdrew $40,000 from his personal savings account, took a $13,000 advance from his firm, borrowed $65,000 from Howie Quinn, a St. Louis gambler who owned stock in dog tracks, and took a loan of $35,000 more from the Multnomah track in which he was an investor. On the morning of Feb. 5 Keen walked out of his house, got into his Cadillac and stepped on the starter. The ensuing blast blew out a wall of the garage, smashed a little machine shop where he worked for a hobby, demolished the automobile and blew what remained of his body through the back seat.

These days there is an antiseptic calm around dog tracks. In the tower at Bonita Springs where John Braham works his remote control of the rabbit an array of desks faces the windows overlooking the track. Seated at them are the presiding judge, the associate judge, the racing secretary, the assistant racing secretary, a representative of the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering and a chart writer. In adjoining quarters are the cameraman to record photo finishes, a television camera operator and the announcer. The atmosphere is friendly but watchful, something like the mood encountered when you are searched before boarding a plane.

The device used to control the speed of the rabbit is enclosed in a glass case where no one can reach it except the lure operator. It looks like the control arm used by the motorman of an old-fashioned trolley car. This is because it is the control formerly used on a trolley. Nothing that has since been developed is as suitable for running a mechanical rabbit as these obsolete streetcar mechanisms, and the one at the Bonita Springs grey-hound track is said to be 80 years old.

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