Finished Line

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

By the late 1980s, however, attendance started to fall off, and the '90s grew grim. The Biscayne Greyhound Track in northwest Miami-Dade closed in 1995. In 1996, the legislature took steps to shore up the flagging pari-mutuel industry. Greyhound track owners received a $12.9 million tax reduction, the right to open low-stakes poker rooms (Hollywood has one tucked away on the second floor), and permission to simulcast all thoroughbred horseraces. Every track in the nation, however, was going after the same dwindling amount of dollars being bet.

Although a boom decade for most businesses, the 1990s was a time of decay for dog racing. Sixteen tracks dropped live racing, and only three of those remained open for simulcasting. In addition, seven states -- Maine, Virginia, Vermont, Idaho, Washington, Nevada, and North Carolina -- banned live and/or simulcast greyhound racing in the 1990s, leaving 46 facilities in 15 states.

The bottom line withered as a result. Most tracks saw declines in live wagering of 60 to 90 percent between 1991 and 2000. The losses amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Many employees at Hollywood have worked in the industry long enough to remember the glory days. Howard Berg, once an announcer at various South Florida tracks and now a director of marketing at the Hollywood facility, recalls million-dollar nights and crowds of 10,000. Like many, he blames the decline on the explosion of entertainment options, especially slot machines. "What you had at that time was horseracing during the day and dogs and jai-alai at night -- and the Dolphins on Sunday. That was it."

Still, Berg is hopeful. He points out that children have been allowed at the track since the 1988-89 season, thanks to the Florida Legislature. "There's the future, to expose them to racing," Berg declares. "Kids come out to the racetrack and they love to watch the dogs run. They love the dogs."

Children's enthrallment aside, greyhounds are a commodity and used accordingly. Dwindling purses appear to have led increasing numbers of trainers to dope their dogs in hopes of winning. The state conducts urine testing for horses and canines to control illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Through the 1990s, only about 75 dogs a year turned up positive in the state. That number doubled the past two years, and cases involving cocaine derivatives have accounted for the majority of the increase. Trainers, who ultimately are held responsible by the state for drug positives, have either grown more brazen or more foolish.

Hollywood had one of the state's most egregious cases of dog doping last season. During a frenzied week in January 2003, four dogs trained by Kenneth Purdy took first place in their races. Winners are routinely tested, and the analyses turned up cocaine derivatives in the dogs' urine. Purdy was fined $8,000 and is barred from working in pari-mutuel racing in Florida.

The end of a greyhound's racing career can also be brutal. Depending upon whose numbers you use, 4,500 to 30,000 greyhounds too slow or unfit for racing die each year in America. Their demise is sometimes unseemly. In May 2002, sheriff's deputies in Lillian, Alabama, discovered the remains of about 3,000 greyhounds on a farm belonging to 68-year-old Robert Rhodes. For 40 years, he'd been dispatching the animals with a bullet in the head or neck for $10 apiece. Investigators suspected some of those dogs came from South Florida tracks.

"Nobody in the industry was shocked by that story," contends Michelle Weaver, who with her husband operates Friends of Greyhounds in Sunrise. "Down here, they used to take them to the Everglades and gut them so there'd be enough blood that the gators would get 'em."

*******

Despite its celebs and packed crowds -- or perhaps because of them -- Hollywood has always been a haven for rogues and operators.

After 45 years of wagering on the dogs, Stefo Yankovski calls the track his "sweet home." He's an ever-present figure at the track, crowned always with a dark-blue Greek fisherman's cap. The 67-year-old Macedonian immigrated to America at age 18 to escape communism, and early on, he took on the tinhorn's ethic. His fractured English and heavy accent sometimes obscure what he's trying to say, but he relies as much on personal charm and a winning smile as on words.

"The only thing God gave me...," he trails off, aiming for the right word. "I'm very natural. I know how to smooth-talk, intelligent-talk, be nice. I'm a good hustler, you know?"

He moves about the parlor, program in hand, chatting up this or that person, touting his picks, eavesdropping. "It's enjoyment," he explains. "You bullshit with people. You maybe don't feel well, have a headache -- you come here and it clears your head up."

In other words, "he's a hustler," opines Mike, a hulking Bulgarian with missing teeth who declined to give his last name. Mike has been betting the dogs for 23 years and at one time even owned greyhounds. He sits close to the TVs and mingles little during the 14-race live meets.

"He's going to take a shot in the mouth one day, in the face," Mike says of the Macedonian. "If you're so sure of a race, bet yourself. Why go after someone else? He wants to play with someone else's money." He pauses, then wants to make clear: "He's good. My friend. I like him."

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