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There are 30,000 greyhounds racing at 55 tracks in 17 states, but only eight are swift enough to qualify for the $125,000 Greyhound Race of Champions, which the sport's publicity hounds insist on calling dogdom's equivalent of the Super Bowl or the Kentucky Derby. This year's event, the ninth running, was held last Saturday night at the Multnomah Kennel Club just outside Portland, Ore., and doggone if the local canine didn't pop out of the box and upset the favorite.
Though the winner, a 35-month-old brindle male named Daring Don, was listed as representing the Interstate Kennel in Byers, Colo., he began to develop last year at Multnomah before being shipped to Colorado, where he became a hot dog, winning 11 of 17 races. The Oregon track is also the home base of Daring Don's owner-trainer, Perry Padrta, a former noseguard on the University of Wyoming football team who, in the late '60s, played with Jim Kiick, who later went on to star with the Miami Dolphins.
Going into the 670-yard race, the middle distance for greyhounds, Padrta believed the experts were foolishly ignoring Daring Don, whose only previous stake victory had been in this year's Interstate Derby in Colorado. The 3-2 favorite was Lone Lobo, the only dog in the field to win all three of his qualifying races outright for the Race of Champions. Lobo was followed closely by HB's Prince Red, whose :37.92 clocking in his final qualifier set a track record at Multnomah.
"My dog can get out of there in a damn hurry," said Padrta the day before the race. "He likes to run, but it takes him a while to figure things out. The more he runs around the racetrack, the more he figures things out—and he's had plenty of races around this track."
The crowd of 8,396 that showed up at Multnomah on a hot and humid night probably would have been larger had the Portland Trail Blazers not held some kind of dunkathon downtown on the same evening. Considering the dog show the Blazers put on against Detroit in the NBA Finals, how could the greyhounds possibly hope to compete?
As any trainer will tell you, a dog race is often decided in the first 30 feet. Greyhounds, unlike thoroughbreds, have only one style, and that's to go hell-bent after the artificial lure from the start. Oh, sure, dogs like to run on different parts of the track (inside, middle or outside), and some get faster as a race goes on, but, by and large, the dog who breaks on top has a significant advantage.
It didn't quite work that way in the Race of Champions, however. At the track announcer's call of "Heeere comes Rusty" (the name of the bone-shaped lure at Multnomah), Lone Lobo broke sluggishly from the No. 2 box and was never a factor, struggling home last. Daring Don, meanwhile, sent off the third choice at 8-1, broke second out of the No. 7 hole to HB's Prince Red, took the lead by the first turn and kept it, although he was pressed to hold off Sassy Winner by half a length. The winning time of :38.05 was deemed excellent, especially in the wilting conditions.
The superstitious Padrta, who spent the race squeezing a lucky rock he had picked up on the way to the paddock, was properly modest after Daring Don's win. "The only thing I did to get this dog ready," he said, "was to not get a haircut and to change colognes. I went from Obsession to Members Only."
"Shoot," said one of Padrta's buddies, who was standing nearby, "I knew him when he didn't even use cologne."
The sweet smell of success is getting stronger by the day in greyhound racing. At the drop of a bone, the sport's devotees will whip out figures showing that greyhound racing ranks sixth nationally in attendance among all sports—and that was before three new tracks opened this year, all in Wisconsin. It is a trend that has worried people in the thoroughbred industry for some time.