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"The horse people don't like the dogs, so we'll never get into California or New York because they'll spend their last dollar to keep us out," says veteran owner and president of the American Greyhound Council, E.J. Alderson of St. Petersburg, Fla. "If you put a dog track next to a horse track, we'll beat them every time. Right now there are 17 dog tracks in Florida to four thoroughbred tracks, and we've got to help subsidize the horses to keep them going."
Alderson wasn't just woofing, either. At The Woodlands in Kansas City, Kans., the first track in the nation to run both thoroughbreds and greyhounds, many bettors have definitely gone to the dogs. The reasons? It's less expensive to attend dog races, most of the canine cards are run at night, the races are easier to see because the tracks are smaller, and there are only 10 minutes between races instead of the 25 minutes at thoroughbred racetracks. "Also, the fact that the dogs don't have jockeys appeals to many people," says Alderson. As does the fact that no medication is permitted in dog racing, leading the $2 bettor to believe that he's getting a squarer deal.
Befitting the sport's growing popularity, the 1990 edition of the Race of Champions got more national exposure than ever, which is still almost nothing. The race was televised live on cable TV's SportsChannel America, available to a potential 27 million viewers. Nine tracks also picked up the simulcast, and seven TV stations in six states signed on to show at least excerpts of the race.
The dog people are also beginning to polish their image. The practice of training young greyhounds with live rabbits has all but been abolished, and a nationwide adoption program has been established so that those greyhounds who are either too slow or too old to be useful racers can become somebody's pet. "If somebody has a fenced-in yard and looks like they're half as smart as the dog," Alderson said, "then we'll give them one."
Padrta was bitten by the dogs shortly after leaving Wyoming. His stocky, 5'11" frame is typical of a former noseguard, though he now packs several more pounds than the 165 at which he played football. The first time he went to a dog track, in Arizona, his initial impression was that "these are the perfect athletes, just the way they're built." When he decided to get into the greyhound game, he moved to Oregon and learned to train under J.M. Edwards, a cantankerous old-timer.
Of the people connected to the eight competitors in the Race of Champions, only Padrta served a triple role: owner of the kennel (Windance Greyhounds Inc.), owner of the dog, and trainer. He also owns Daring Don's sire, Me Sompin. He thought so much of Daring Don's potential that he bought him for $15,000 from the Oklahoma breeder who had bred his bitch, Cheyenne Jan, to Me Sompin in 1987. "I'd really like to find somebody to train for me," said Padrta last weekend. "I've gone through quite a few. The trouble was, I'd leave a month and come back to find a completely different program. I guess I just figured I'd do it all myself. It's like I'm a 100 percent sort of guy."
He now has the sport's top dog, at least for the moment. In greyhound racing, fame is as fleeting as the races themselves. No dog has ever been a repeat winner in the Race of Champions, which next year will be held in Jacksonville. However, even if Padrta is fortunate enough to win the race again someday, it won't be nearly as sweet as getting the first one before the home folks.
In the winner's circle, he couldn't keep his hands off his panting dog. He patted Daring Don's head, rubbed him under the neck and scratched him on the chest.
"He's going to get a porterhouse tomorrow," said a beaming Padrta, "and I might have it catered, too."