The big dog later won the Hollywood Futurity Stakes on the same track, and the day Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing, Downing took his third major stakes race in a row: the Irish-American Stakes at Biscayne. At the time his paycheck there, $37,500, equaled the richest purse in the history of greyhound racing.
It had taken him five months to build an international reputation. In June, Downing was challenged to a $7,500 match race against New England's top dog, Rooster Cogburn, at Wonderland Park near Boston, the Rooster's home track. Downing beat that so-called "Wonder Dog" by eight lengths in their first race, and by one length in the second. In August, Downing was invited to a match race against G.P.'s Sarah, said to be the top dog in South Dakota, on her home track in Black Hills. Downing was booked into an air-conditioned motel room to escape the heat, and he responded by shattering the track record by .6 of a second, leaving old Sarah eating 11 lengths of dust. The Black Hills track set attendance and pari-mutuel handle records that day, which was the norm wherever Downing appeared.
Downing won his fourth stakes race at Wonderland Park in the Battle of the Ages Stakes. It was there that a mystery figure nicknamed Ten Grand Teddy wagered $10,000 on Downing to show, and three times he collected before vanishing into the crowd. But the poor fellow resurfaced once too often this August at Biscayne. In a race in which Downing finished fourth, a dog named Blazing Red paid $13 to win, $6.60 to place and $95.80 to show.
Downing closed 1977 with his fifth stakes-race win, the prestigious American Derby, which was run over ?ths of a mile in Taunton, Mass. It was the first time Downing had ever raced that distance, and in doing so he set another track record, winning by 11 lengths. Of all Downing's races, Frey thinks the American Derby was his best.
This spring, when Trainer Roland Alves was asked to compare his undefeated dog, King Rhody, to Downing, Alves said, "King Rhody is a good dog and possibly a great one. But I saw Downing break the track record at Taunton last fall in a race in which he didn't even get a good start. Downing is something you see once in a lifetime."
At the end of the year, Downing was what The Greyhound Review called the "laughingstock winner" of the Rural Rube Award as the top sprinter of 1977, the somewhat scrambled syntax meaning that he won laughing.
Then came the disabling injury. In a routine training session in late November, Downing injured the ligaments of the tarsal bone in his right hind leg. The dog was rested over the winter, then worked back into shape by two of Frey's daughters, who took Downing along on five-mile jogs while conditioning themselves for high school track. By August, Downing was ready to defend the Irish-American Stakes. He made it to the finals, but reinjured his leg doing it. Frey and Trainer Don Cuddy decided to run the dog anyway, and Downing limped home last. Cuddy broke into tears as Downing was taken from the track for the last time, and that night Frey announced the big dog's retirement.
No one is crying over Downing now, except possibly Ten Grand Teddy, and certainly no tears are being shed on behalf of Frey. He and Downing are constant companions as Frey oversees the handling of his 200 other greyhounds and waits for the syndication papers to be signed. That is being handled by Ray (Tiny) Dupree, a 380-pound Denver restaurateur who has played the puppies, as they say, for 32 of his 49 years and by his own estimate makes between $40,000 and $60,000 annually at it. Dupree owned Downing's mother, alluringly named Hooker's Flower, and it was his idea to make Downing the first syndicated greyhound ("He was first at everything else"). He owns one of 10 shares in the dog. Frey also has kept a share, and the others are being sold for $15,000 each. Most of the shares will be purchased by breeders.
Dupree estimates that a Downing puppy out of a proven bitch will bring as much as $1,000 at first, and since each Downing owner is allotted 10 breedings a year—litters average eight pups—the shareholders could easily get their money back the first year. Further, science has only recently developed a technique for freezing and storing canine semen. The National Greyhound Association has not banned artificial insemination in the breeding of registered greyhounds, as The Jockey Club, the ruling body in thoroughbred racing, has done, but it is studying the subject. Says Dupree, "If these techniques are approved and Downing proves himself, the dog will literally be worth millions."
All of which seems lost on Downing as he enjoys his last few weeks in Florida. Once the syndication comes through, Downing will be sent to a breeding kennel in Kansas City, because of its central location. Until then, Frey says, it is the "life of Riley." Downing leaps into his owner's van, where he is used to riding in carpeted splendor, and clambers over two large volumes of his own clippings on the seat. "Come down, Handy, into the back," Frey says. "You're going to have to live like a dog for 10 whole minutes."