Irene (Billy) Jenkins, 83, and her younger sister, Capitola (Cappy) Haught, 69, live in the Sonora Desert 30 miles west of Tucson. Beside their small mobile home is a cinder-block kennel that Billy built in the early 1970s. Today the kennel houses 33 greyhounds, who spend most of their time lounging in six-by eight-foot mesh boxes that are stacked in two tiers. Another trainer joins the sisters every day as they take care of the dogs—feeding, watering, muzzling each one before weighing it, cleaning up after them. Four times a day, eight or 10 at a time, the dogs are turned out in fenced yards. The sisters mix greyhound medicines and tonics as necessary, and as they work, they talk to, pet and rub the animals. The dogs reply with appropriate wiggles, yips and licks.
Late in the afternoon, six days a week, Cappy loads as many as seven of the dogs in traveling cages onto a pickup and drives to Tucson Greyhound Park. She stays there until the race card is completed, which some nights is 11 p.m. Then she trucks back home across the desert with the dogs.
After having done so for nearly 25 years, Billy no longer makes regular trips to the track. She stopped in 1988 because, as she says, "I'm getting blind as an old bat."
The sisters have a relatively small kennel, but last year their dogs made 1,198 starts and finished in the money (first, second, third or fourth place) 660 times. That's 55% in the money, with 40-45% the average among the 26 or so trainers who regularly run greyhounds at Tucson. Billy has no idea how many winners she has trained but knows she always has won enough money to cover expenses. "The doggies have taken care of themselves, taken care of me and paid for all of this," Billy says, indicating her modest desert establishment. "Not a penny has come from gambling. I haven't bet in 30 years. I've seen too many throw their money through those windows and end up without enough to take care of their dogs. Gamblers come up and they say, 'Billy, who do you like in this race?' I tell them to bet on the rabbit [which is what the lure used to be] because it always comes in first."
Dog racing in Tucson is to this sport somewhat similar to the Durham Bulls in professional baseball. Compared with the other 52 dog tracks in the U.S., "we are in the lower third," says Mike Romaine, the Tucson track general manager. This ranking is based on average attendance per card (1,000 paying customers), handle ($100,000) and prize money ($150-200 for winners of premier races). But Romaine points out that the Tucson track, established in 1944, is one of the oldest in the country, and for the past four years has been operating year-round, which many others do not.
A dog named JR's Ripper and his owner, Billy Jenkins, are, in fact, celebrities of the first order in the larger world of greyhound racing. On Nov. 22, 1985, Ripper won his 138th race, breaking the career-win record for American greyhounds, which had been set 30 years earlier by a California bitch, Indy Ann. To put the record in perspective: Since 1912, when greyhounds first raced on tracks in the U.S., only 17 dogs have won 100 or more races. (A dog called Checkers, with 108 victories, was also trained by Billy.)
"There is a fine tradition here," Romaine says of the track that has been Billy's home turf, "and we think we have an attractive small plant with a nice family atmosphere."
This is certainly an allowable claim early on a midwinter evening before the cash customers have arrived and while the handlers and their dogs are getting ready to entertain them. The sun has just set behind the Tucson Mountains. The desert air has not yet chilled, and the ground is still radiating heat. In a field behind the tote board, greyhounds are being unloaded from trucks and vans. They yap moderately, sounding somewhat like distant coyotes.
The hundred or so dogs who will run for money on the evening's card are brought into the stewards' paddock. They are weighed and examined by vets, and their identifying ear tattoos are checked. More or less on command, they pee into paper cups, and the urine is tested for drugs. Certified as fit and organically pure, they are taken from the trainers—who are not permitted to have anything more to do with the dogs until after the races—and put into kennel boxes, which are then guarded by track authorities.
On this night, in a fenced area outside the stewards' building, another 70 dogs remain with their trainers, waiting to run in one of 10 schooling heats upon which there is no pari-mutuel wagering. These are animals who have never, or not recently, raced for money. Before they can do so, they must meet qualifying times (i.e., 32 seconds for 5/16 of a mile for dogs who have raced before) and convince the three racing stewards of their suitability. This particular evening, Cappy has brought in three money dogs, who have been left in the security kennel, and one maiden schooler, a bitch with whom she must stay until the animal has run in at least four of these preliminary qualifiers.