Finished Line

Federal indictments. Drugging. Lowbrow culture. Hollywood Greyhound Track is for the dogs.

There be three things which go well, yea,

Which are comely in going:

A lion, which is strongest among beasts and

turneth not away from any;

a greyhound; a he-goat also.

-- Solomon, Proverbs 30

It's a late April afternoon, though the sun remains far enough above the west of the grandstand at the Hollywood Greyhound Track to shine on the eight dogs standing on the tan, dirt surface. This is the brief promenade performed for bettors. The handlers grip the leashes close to the neck. Some of the lean beasts just can't wait the few minutes for the hell-for-broke race.

The vast grandstand is empty except for a couple of dozen men and women. Built about 30 years ago, this seating, understand, is for tourists, for the folks who want to gawk at the pretty doggies, the people who make $2 bets because a greyhound is named after, say, a favorite uncle. The outdoors is for the occasional smoker who drifts outside to light up.

But if you want to hang with the serious handicappers, the hard-core dogmen, look no further than the cavernous betting parlor on the first floor. It's a place where the sun sets without notice and time is delineated by MTP -- minutes to post. For these men, dogs are a 30-second oval blur flickering across the television sets, leading to elation or crushed hopes.

The room is stark and to the point. Half as long as a football field, it's divided lengthwise in the middle by a series of archways, atop which perch two banks of television sets, 43 on each side. In front of the screens are three long rows of tables with blue, faux-marble tops. Today, about 150 people, mostly men, sit or stand before the screens, which simulcast dog and harness racing from both Hollywood and around the country.

Long ago, the Hollywood track was a magnet for glitterati. Damon Runyon presented the raceway's first trophy 70 years ago. For decades, this place lured the likes of actor William Holden and sex bomb Jayne Mansfield. In its prime, it drew a half-million people each season, and even ten years ago, it was pulling down $65 million in live wagering a season. Attendance, however, collapsed during the 1990s. It now attracts fewer than 100,000 a year and took in a paltry $11.8 million last season.

The decline has taken place throughout Florida, which is America's dog-racing mecca with 16 tracks, far more than any other state. Nationally, greyhound wagering dropped by hundreds of millions of dollars during the 1990s; 16 tracks from Florida to Wisconsin ended live racing during that decade. Although once a crowd-pleasing pastime for millions, the competition could soon go the way of drive-in movie theaters.

In its wane, the Hollywood track has drawn the scrutiny of federal prosecutors. Two weeks ago, a half dozen people were sentenced for a tax evasion scheme at the track that patrons and tellers contend took millions of dollars from federal coffers. Some tellers testified that illegal shortcuts are a way of life when it comes to betting the dogs at Hollywood. As for the bettors, they're all chasing a shrinking purse, and many scramble to beg, borrow, and hustle for two bucks just to make another wager. The prestige that once lured Tinseltown idols and sports stars to the track is ancient history. Only the greyhounds remain a class act.

*******

Roberto is a twig of a man with dark, rheumy eyes, caterpillar eyebrows, and a droopy face ripped from a Dali canvas. The few teeth remaining in his top gum are jagged and slightly skewed. His thick Italian accent makes him a bit difficult to understand. Despite myopia that borders on blindness, his mind is a handicapping machine. He asked that his last name not be used.

Before each live race, he sits with the program open before him. He holds a quarter-sized magnifying glass a few inches from his eye and a couple of inches from the page. Then, head, hand, and eye moving slowly as one, he scans the prolific figures on dog number one: weight, kennel owner, odds, best race time, grade, win-place-show record, and analysis of the dog's previous six races, including its start, 1/8th, stretch, and final positions. Then he methodically sifts through the info on all eight dogs. He rarely makes a note.

Today, as he lifts his head from the minutiae of race 11, he mumbles, "Two with one, three, eight." He expects the two dog to come in first, followed second by one, three, or eight. For as little as $6, he can hedge his bet for the perfecta by choosing as the top two finishers -- in order -- dogs 2 and 1, 2 and 3, or 2 and 8. The dicey part, of course, is picking the lead greyhound. Roberto stares blankly, then dives back down to confirm the sagacity of his picks. Once certain, he jots the numbers down atop the page.

Roberto, however, has a penurious gambler's predicament: He doesn't have a spare dollar to spend on race 11. He's often down to his last few bucks. But today has been particularly unkind to him. This time, this race, he's confident he's picked the winning dogs. So he takes on the role of a tout, a track insider who slips a little knowledge to anyone willing to slip him a few bucks.

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