By the time they got around to running the final [5/16]ths of a mile of the $115,000 World Greyhound Classic at the posh Hollywood, Fla. track last Saturday night, the "world" had been narrowed to eight American dogs, although two of them boasted long and illustrious Irish bloodlines. No matter. As Tommy Lynch, the track's general manager and resident wit, said, "When you send seven guys out to face a firing squad, who checks passports?"
Prosifying Lynch's metaphor, a large, rambunctious puppy name of Downing was the favorite, so much so that in the eyes of the record 12,859 fans who turned out for the third running of the race, the other seven entries might have been alley-bred mongrels from Missoula. Which says a lot about a greyhound which won't be two years old until Saint Patrick's Day, and one that just seven weeks ago was making the second start of his career, in a Grade D race.
As a matter of fact, Downing was running in the Classic almost by accident. The red-brindle 75-pounder had won his maiden race by 19 lengths on Jan. 11, and had come back three days later for a 12-length romp in his first Grade D start. In Florida greyhound racing, when a dog wins he is usually stepped up in class, from maiden to the D and on up the alphabet to Grade A. By the same token, three straight finishes out of the money drops a dog a class. By normal progression, Downing's next start would have been in a C race, and that is where his owner, Jim Frey of Sarasota, Fla., fully intended him to run.
Frey, 42, a former college baseball player from Waco, Texas, has been racing greyhounds full time since 1963. He knows well the penalty for moving a promising dog up too soon. "From a pure business standpoint you just don't do it," he said. "A dog can lose his confidence, especially a young dog who gets rolled or tumbled hard in the first turn, and he just won't run anymore."
But late in January, Frey got a call from Lynch, who was trying to fill out the Classic field. In 1975, for the first Classic, there had been 64 entries, half of them from foreign nations, although as it turned out, the Spanish contingent had never been any closer to Madrid than Biscayne Boulevard. Last year the stakes drew 56 entries, 18 of them foreign. For this Classic, five of the 48 dogs nominated were foreign, but only one of them made it as far as the semifinal round.
The problem is time. It takes from 90 to 120 days for a foreign dog to become acclimated to race well in the U.S. "And then, with the archaic six-month quarantine laws of England and Ireland, once a dog is here, here he has to stay," says Perrine (Gootsie) Palmer, the track's top executive and a former mayor of Miami.
At the urging of American owners, none of whom relished the idea of sharing prize money with owners of inferior foreign dogs, Hollywood last year changed the conditions for the Classic. The first year there had been a foreign and a U.S. division, with four dogs from each division making it to the final. Along the way a lot of fine American dogs were eliminated, and some not-so-fine foreign dogs made it to the final.
"Last year we decided to lump them all together and let the best make it to the final," Palmer said. "It cost us a lot of foreign entries. Now we are going to have to work some more on the conditions, maybe running separate divisions up to the semifinal rounds."
And so, looking to beef up the slender Classic field, Lynch called Frey, who hadn't seen Downing win his two Hollywood starts. "Frankly we are short on dogs," Lynch said. "The fans have really taken to Downing. Would you consider running him in the World Classic?"
Lynch was asking for help. A decent man, Frey asked, "How many races would he have to run before he gets eliminated?"