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Bil Gilbert
April 16, 1990
Greyhound racing is the game of two elderly sisters
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April 16, 1990

They've Gone To The Dogs

Greyhound racing is the game of two elderly sisters

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Every five minutes or so a pack of schoolers sprints by in hot, futile pursuit of a white mechanical lure that is fashioned in the shape of a bone, an enlarged version of a commercial dog biscuit. Formerly greyhound racers chased mechanical lures that looked like rabbits, but it seems that in this sensitive age, lures of this design are regarded as a tad too suggestive. Thus the phony bone. "But most of us still think of it as a rabbit," Cappy admits.

Spokespersons for the greyhound racing authorities say that, using 1988 attendance (26.6 million annually) as an indicator, theirs is the seventh most popular sport in the country, hockey being just ahead of it, wrestling just behind. For the uninitiated, it's something of a puzzle how so many people can work up so much enthusiasm for watching and wagering on greyhounds as they run for mere seconds on a track. The races are so brief, and the dogs so small, so uniform and so tightly bunched that it is difficult to know which one is losing your money.

The lure machine, with the bone extended on a mechanical arm, moves along the perimeter of the course, trolley-fashion. After crossing the finish line the device goes into a fenced chute, where the dogs can see it but can't get at it. The dogs follow along the fence for 30 yards. Then the bone disappears into the machine and it stops moving. So, therefore, do the dogs. Track attendants leash the animals and lead them away. Most of the dogs go eagerly. Those that don't are unceremoniously dragged away by their exasperated handlers, who also sometimes call them uncomplimentary names.

As a natural consequence of being 69 and having spent much of her life outdoors in Arizona, Cappy's face is leathery in tint and texture, though in all other respects she seems ageless. She is a slight woman of very supple carriage and upright posture. While handling dogs, loading trucks, simply walking or gesturing, her movements seem remarkably easy and efficient. She does not have the aches and pains common to her age group and is, refreshingly, never hypochondriacal. More unusual, she is seldom nostalgic. She will speak—in a soft, Southwestern purr—about being widowed, her children, grandchildren, people and dogs she has known. But rarely does she make judgments, good or bad, about things that have happened to her or describe how they have left her marked and feeling. Perhaps it is just reticence, but, true or false, the impression she leaves is of a person who is peculiarly serene about the past and future.

"Watching the schooling races is about the only time I still get much interested at the track," she says. "When I get home, Billy is full of questions about how this or that dog did. I tell her I was busy and didn't see, but I don't try to watch very often. In the kennel they show some personality. But on the track they do look like little machines."

With rare exceptions, greyhounds are retired from racing before they are five years old because they have been slowed by age or injuries. They are explosive performers. Like human sprinters, they are prone to muscle pulls and tears, and to broken feet and hocks. Promising animals are kept for breeding, but most, after retiring from the track, are destroyed because kennel owners lack the time, space and inclination to keep unproductive animals. When Cappy was an independent trainer, she successfully placed as pets dogs that were unsuitable for the track. She says that greyhounds that haven't raced can make steady, educable companions (her own is currently a 3-year-old miniature female named Samantha) and seem to have a special affinity for small children. However, animals who have raced for most of their adult lives usually do not make good house dogs. "They are very hyper. They want to get at the least little thing that moves, so they have to be tied or kept between high fences." Cappy says. "If they get loose, they start running and keep on until they are lost or dead. Everything but the running has been worked out of them. In a way they are made simple."

Cappy says that racing greyhounds are almost always fed and treated decently because doing otherwise is contrary to a trainer's economic self-interest. "But when you think of it, they have very strange lives," she says. "They are put in a turnout pen three or four times a day. They go to a track once or twice a week and run for 30 or 40 seconds. Other than that they live in a box. After I had my own kennel for a while, I started wondering if the dogs were happy. Maybe that isn't the right word or even a question that can be asked about anything other than us. But I could not find an answer that satisfied me. This is one, but not the only reason, I got out of the business."

And why is she now back in it?

"I went to Tennessee in 1987 to be near my son. I thought I would try to be a retired woman. But it was plain that Billy would have to have more full-time help if she was going to keep her kennel. I know the dogs are what make her happy, keep her going. I could help, so I came back. How long I stay, that depends on Billy."

Billy Jenkins is a 4'10", stout and now bent woman. She looks her 83 years, and is well aware of and not particularly pleased by them. "Too blind to see the dogs run." she says of herself. "Getting deaf, and shy about talking to strangers. I miss what they say, and think they will think I am a fool. My wind is gone. But most days I still have my wits."

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