During the fourth race at the Bonita Springs dog track in Florida not long ago, a big black greyhound named Happy Marty fell going around the first turn. He got up to race on but reversed directions, passing the grandstand again all alone. In the control tower high above the track the lure operator, John Braham, who had seen such things happen before, speeded up the mechanical rabbit as fast as it would go—about 96 mph—to put it far beyond the reach of the seven other dogs in the race.
Then, when the rabbit was coming off the backstretch, Braham cut the power completely and let it coast as it approached the oncoming dog. The mechanical lure is a big contraption about two feet long, a fleecy, white artificial beast made of spring steel covered with the sort of imitation sheepskin used to make the linings of inexpensive winter coats. It has enormous gleaming ruby-red eyes and costs $35 at the factory. It is not designed to fool dogs into thinking it is a real rabbit; rather it is made to look like a rabbit to people watching in the distant grandstand. Happy Marty took one look at the apparition coming toward him, turned tail and headed back the way he should have run in the first place. "If that dog had wheeled to the outside," said Braham, "I would have missed him. But he wheeled to the inside, and the arm holding the rabbit hit him right on the butt."
The other dogs were now coming close so Braham had to speed up the lure once more. Thus Happy Marty and the rabbit scooted together toward the finish line. Braham cut the power again to let the dog go free, and Happy Marty took off with a rocket burst of speed seen only when a dog has been frightened out of its wits by—well, a large rabbit. The greyhound drew away fast, and with a fine finishing burst crossed the wire six lengths in front of the rabbit, which in turn was a scant four rabbit-lengths ahead of the lead dog of the rest of the pack. "No, Happy Marty wasn't hurt," said Braham. "Just bruised a little. But the NO RACE sign was flashed on the tote board immediately."
At a large track such as Flagler in Miami a canceled race can be rescheduled for later, but how do you make up the loss of an incalculable amount of goodwill from the bettors? Consequently everything possible is done to make sure that nothing goes wrong with the rabbit. That synthetic animal now operates so efficiently that it is rare if there is more than one breakdown a season at each of the 40 tracks in the United States, perhaps 40 cancellations out of a total of approximately 40,000 races. Still, accidents do happen, and the folklore of lure operators is filled with tales of living creatures, including turtles, real rabbits and cats—especially cats—that wander onto tracks and suddenly find themselves, instead of the mechanical rabbit, the designated quarry of a pack of speeding greyhounds.
The folklore also includes some mechanical failures, such as the time at the Daytona Beach greyhound track when the power went off and the lure hung motionless in midair. Most of the dogs, after a moment of confusion, raced on—with no apparent desire to have anything to do with an airborne rabbit. At another track an inexperienced dog took off in the wrong direction until it encountered that monstrous red-eyed rabbit coming straight toward it at high speed. Trying to get away, the dog was knocked down by the arm holding the rabbit, which is purposely suspended high over the track so it will not hit a dog across the legs. The surprised greyhound bounded up, cleared a fence, ran down through a ditch to an exit ramp, evaded a dozen men, scooted under the turnstiles, streaked across a parking lot and disappeared into a nearby woods.
There is something disquieting about a mechanical rabbit if you see one eyeball to eyeball. When modern American greyhound racing with mechanical lures began in 1919 every effort was made to duplicate real rabbits in order to fool the dogs into thinking they were after the genuine thing. For many years they were stuffed, padded, sewed and otherwise costumed until they were almost indistinguishable from a live animal. But when it was learned that greyhounds did not care at all how the lures looked, things went the opposite way. At White City in London one night the fog was so heavy the dogs could not see the rabbit, so an enterprising track operator fastened a red light to the mechanical creature's tail. The dogs raced after the light as though they believed rabbits had always been so equipped by nature.
These days the mechanical rabbit suggests some vanished species, a predatory monster straight out of a cave drawing, but it is also completely modern, an altogether artificial species of Lepus. It is an ideal robot: no brains, no blood, no guts, glassy-eyed, unfeeling, indifferent to nervous dogs and nervous bettors. And it fulfills the purpose for which it was created so effectively that last year American bettors alone wagered some $875 million to watch packs of dogs chase futilely after it.
Perhaps a vague dislike for the mechanical rabbit accounts for the extreme obscurity that hides its inventor. Nobody in the history of any sport brought about a change comparable to that worked by the inventor of the device, and yet no inventor in sports history is so little known. The few references to him in standard works do not even agree on his name or his birthplace. He was Oliver P. Smith, according to the
, or Oliver B. Smith, in The World Book. Depending on whom you choose to believe, he was from Oklahoma, Arkansas or California. The Britannica says that Smith first tested his invention in Tucson in 1909. Another authority says Smith first developed the contraption in Houston in 1912, while others say it happened on various dates in Salt Lake City, Tulsa or Emeryville, Calif.
Aside from a few, often contradictory, recollections in greyhound journals, there is little in print concerning Smith. There is one notable exception—he is mentioned in some biographies of Al Capone. They are passing mentions for the most part, the sense of which is that Smith's rabbit was indirectly responsible for Capone's downfall. That is essentially true. Capone blasted his way past hundreds of rival mobsters, bribed public officials, intimidated witnesses and got away with murder, only to be felled by a mechanical bunny.
Smith was no gangster and he had nothing to do with the mobsters who moved into greyhound racing when it became profitable. His true name was Owen Patrick Smith (1869-1927) and he was the son of a Memphis funeral director. A good athlete, he was ingenious and adept at building things but had no engineering training of any kind. Until his mid-20s Smith worked in various Midwestern towns at a variety of jobs, including barbering. By 1905 he was the secretary of the Chamber of Commerce at Hot Springs, S. Dak., a small railroad stop in a region of ghost towns and worked-out mines near the Wyoming and Nebraska borders.