Billy grew up on cattle ranches in northern Arizona. "Our daddy. Lee Miller, raised 11 of us kids on a hand's wages. We were short on money, but we ate good and had fun. And I always had my own dog. The cowboys were the ones who started calling me Bill," she explains as she reminisces. "When people call me Irene, I have to think who they are talking about. When I was nine, I could rope a calf, brand it and cut it if it was a little boy. I was in charge of four old range cows. Every morning I'd catch them, rope them to a corral post and milk those wild girls. Then I'd ride my pony five miles to a little school."
After Billy completed eight grades at the rural school, she went by herself to live in Prescott and pursue her education. But things did not work out as intended. "This one got real sick," Billy says, nodding toward Cappy. "The polio. Her being so much younger, I had done a lot of her raising. When she took sick, she screamed rawhide and blood for me. I came home to nurse her. For two years she had trouble walking, and whatever my chores, I'd carry her around on my back. I tell people that's why I'm short—from lugging Cappy."
When Cappy recovered, Billy set off again on her own, this time to Tucson, where she put herself through beautician school by working as a waitress in a cattleman's restaurant, a job she thinks may have been as educational as high school or college. She was married for a time to Harry Jenkins, a railroad man who worked for the Southern Pacific going between Tucson and El Paso, but the marriage lasted only a few years. "He was a pretty good husband, but he was way too finicky. I have never seen such a neat man."
Another sister, Leah, married a man named Carl Boesdorfer. In the '50s, Leah and Carl established a greyhound breeding kennel in Llano, Calif., training and selling dogs throughout the country, and Billy and Cappy used to visit them from time to time. Billy had made only a few recreational trips to the Tucson dog track, but in the early '60s she got a bitch from the Boesdorfers.
Billy started working as an apprentice handler for the late William Wells, a respected man in Arizona greyhound circles. In 1963, she got her trainer's license, though not without controversy. "There never had been a woman trainer in Arizona, and the high mucketymucks on the racing board said that because there hadn't been one, there couldn't be one," she says. "Mr. Wells liked my work. He was a big stockholder in the Arizona tracks. He said he didn't care how things had been, but how they were going to be was that Irene Jenkins would get her papers or he would take out his money and do something else with it. I got the license pronto."
In 1972, Billy bought the property west of Tucson and built the kennel herself. "People said I was too little to do the heavy work. People have been telling me that all my life. I tell them spunk counts for more than size. The hardest part was setting the roof beams. A fellow at the lumberyard showed me how to rig up ropes and pulleys. I'd jump on the contraption, like pumping a swing, raise the timbers and put them in the right place."
Cappy came to Tucson in 1973 and helped Billy. Later Cappy got her own trainer's license. Except for the few months that she was in Tennessee, she has been in racing ever since.
After greyhounds commence racing, when they are about 18 months old, they are occasionally put on a sprint path—a short, narrow enclosure—and allowed to run back and forth on their own for a few minutes at a time. Other than these brief speed runs, there are no regular workouts, which raises the question of what difference a trainer makes. It is answered by Bill Drozd, who has been with the Tucson track for more than 30 years and is now its director of racing.
Like other members of the greyhound establishment—and a very image-conscious establishment it is—in public, Drozd (pronounced Drost) always speaks highly of everyone connected with the sport. He does not recall any bad trainers, though he allows that some are better than others and is of the opinion that Billy Jenkins is one of the very best: "Billy and Cappy, now that she's back, treat their dogs like they were their children or friends. They do this for one dog, something else for another dog, because they know what each one needs and likes. They are always watching them and going over them with their hands. They don't just feed and water. They give TLC. It brings out the best in their dogs. There are different systems, but all the really top trainers have a gift for doing that.
"JR's Ripper was a solid dog, but the way Billy handled him was exceptional," Drozd continues. "After Ripper started getting famous, there was pressure on Billy to run him a lot—crowds here always picked up when he was entered. People wanted him shipped out of state to run at their track, but she only raced him here at our track. She didn't go after the big-money purses. She watched him like a hawk. If there was any little thing that didn't seem right, she'd scratch him. The dog obviously had a lot of natural ability, but he set his records basically because he ran until he was 5½, started 240 times and never even had a small injury."