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Billy does not own most of her dogs. Instead, she leases them from large breeders, who have broken them to the lure. She runs them when she thinks best, gives an agreed-on percentage of their winnings to the breeder, and when their racing days are over, the dogs return to their home kennels.
Billy did, however, own JR's Ripper outright. "The best money I ever spent," she chortles. "I'd got a nice little black-and-white from Joe and Ruth Staggs [kennel operators in Phoenix], but he no sooner got here than he broke a toe, which finished him for the track. John said he had another black-and-white, Ripper, who had already broken his maiden up in Portland, Oregon, and would probably suit me as a replacement if I wanted to buy." She paid $2,500 for the dog in 1982.
From the beginning, Ripper could break from a starting box faster than any dog Billy had ever seen. "They took pictures at the track, and he'd usually be two jumps ahead in 50 feet," she recalls. Initially, though, Ripper was not a strong closer and lost some races at the finish. Billy happened to run into a retired dog man from Tennessee and mentioned this problem. "He said that Back East they'd give dogs bee pollen to help their wind and stamina. I'd never heard that, but I'm a great hand for learning new things, so I got some pollen from a bee place and mixed it in Ripper's food. He started closing like a house afire. It's expensive, but now I give all the boys and girls a little pollen before they run."
After Ripper won the big 138th (by the length of his nose), he continued into the winter racing season, even though he had passed his fifth birthday and was by the standards of this sport more than the equivalent in age of a Nolan Ryan. He won five more times, and many observers believe that his mark of 143 career victories will remain unsurpassed for decades. (West Palm Beach-based He's My Man leads active racing greyhounds, with 85 victories.)
Ripper entered his final race on March 14, 1986, and lost it stumbling on the final turn. Billy recalls, "I said to myself right then on the track, That's it. No more for Ripper.' That little dog had been so good to me. I wasn't going to be mean enough to let him go out again and maybe get hurt. I brought him back once more to the track, but not to run. just so people could say their au revoirs. I think he liked the limelight and so did I a little bit." In the limelight, after a fireworks display, Billy received a large trophy and Ripper was given a real bone on a silver platter. Shirts with the dog's name and pawprint on them were sold at the park.
Billy kept Ripper in her kennel for two years after his retirement. As a celebrity, he was visited by sentimental racing fans, and he serviced some local bitches, but Billy knew she could not give the famous dog the opportunities he deserved. Ripper now stands at stud in a large breeding kennel in Oklahoma. Billy and Cappy trained nine of his offspring, and one of them, Jesse James, won nine of his first 10 races.
Billy's philosophy of greyhound management is empirical and empathetic. On the day after they run, the dogs are given a baby-oil massage because Billy says she knows how nice a good rub feels when you're a little stiff. Right before lights out in the kennel, all the boys and girls get a cookie because this is a snack Billy likes in the evening. The basic kennel chow is a mixture of lean ground beef, dried fiber meal, a mineral supplement called calf manna, and an all-purpose vitamin capsule of the brand that Billy herself now takes.
Billy thinks that it is not good for a dog to run on a full stomach and that they would be as well-off physically if they didn't eat at all on race days. But she has another theory that eating is the high point of a dog's day and that if the ones who are going to the races in the evening did not eat, while the others did. it would have a bad effect on their mental health. "They'd feel like little kids at a party who got left out when the ice cream was dished up." So in the morning the runners of the day get a kind of placebo—one egg. a large spoon of honey and a pinch of bee pollen mixed in a cup of water. This is light enough for their stomachs but heavy enough so they do not feel rejected. Billy believes that after they have had these prerace goodies a few times, the dogs understand the significance of them and begin looking forward to their trip to the track.
The morning kennel chores take about four hours. Cappy works without breaks, making no wasted motions, saying very little. Billy gives Cappy a steady stream of advice and reminders. After the feeding is done, Cappy starts getting the dogs out of their boxes and putting groups of them in the outside, fenced yards. Billy waits in the warmest turnout pen, bundled up, leaning against the fence. "I'm like an old lizard," she says, "hanging on the wall in the sun."
After their morning business, some of the dogs lie in the sun or take dust baths. Others mill around Billy. She fondles and talks to them, supervises their behavior like a teacher in a schoolyard. As they amble around, only their rear ends—bulging with muscles like the chests of bodybuilders—suggest what they do professionally.