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

Colby Katz
After 20 years of betting, Larry Milano still can't get ahead on the greyhounds.
Colby Katz
After 20 years of betting, Larry Milano still can't get ahead on the greyhounds.
Old greyhounds used to sometimes end up as gator food, says Michelle Weaver, who with husband Jerry Deitch helps adopt out Hollywood's retired dogs.
Colby Katz
Old greyhounds used to sometimes end up as gator food, says Michelle Weaver, who with husband Jerry Deitch helps adopt out Hollywood's retired dogs.
Self-described hustler Stefo Yankovski ponders the next race.
Colby Katz
Self-described hustler Stefo Yankovski ponders the next race.

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.

He saunters toward Sonny and Marty, New York snowbirds, heavily tanned and dressed in tropical shirts, khaki shorts, and white socks with black loafers. Roberto isn't a hard-sell kind of guy, but he's familiar with New Yorkers who guess more than handicap. Roberto knows they value the opinion of old hands. He stands in front of their table and leans in. "Two, with one, three, eight," he says. In gambler's patois, he explains the logic of his choice. Sonny, apparently won over, takes him up on the tip. He sends the old man to the teller with $6. Marty goes with his own hunches.

A couple of minutes later, the announcer declares, "Heeere cooomes Hollywood!" The two mechanical lure dogs swerve by the starting box, tripping a release switch, and the eight greyhounds explode out of the swinging gates. Magic Ratman, a black 76-pounder that is Roberto's key pick for first, takes the inside but remains in second place through the backstretch. In the final quarter of the race, however, he bursts ahead, winning handily against Regall Dodgeball, dog one.

Roberto smiles exuberantly. The 2-1 combo is among the perfectas he bet. It pays $32.40 -- not a princely sum, but it'll put him back in the game. He heads to a teller and collects the 30-odd dollars, shrewdly cashing out in singles. He hands the money to Sonny, who splays it in his hands like a deck of cards. He awards Roberto with four bucks.

Marty verbally kicks himself in the ass, and his pal Sonny is eager to help. "I said, 'Let Roberto make a bet for you,'" Sonny chides.

"Yeah, yeah," Marty agrees.

"And you said, 'Fuck Roberto!' Remember?"

*******

Warren G. Miller was a familiar sight at the Hollywood Greyhound Track through most of the 1990s. Toting a plastic bag filled with odds and ends, the Jheri-curled middle-ager shuffled around the betting parlor looking like a homeless man. With his top front teeth missing, he had a drooling problem and wiped his lips frequently with a handkerchief. Even so, Miller stood out from the down-and-out gamblers for only one thing: He was a key player in a scheme to bilk the IRS out of hundreds of thousands of tax dollars.

Two weeks ago, federal Judge Jose Gonzalez sentenced Miller to 18 months in prison and ordered him to pay the IRS $442,000 in restitution. The judge also meted out jail time, fines, and probation to a half dozen tellers for their part in the so-called ten-percenting scheme. The case reveals a deeply entrenched culture of fraud and greed at the track.

Depending upon whom you believe, Miller was either a shrewd operator or a mentally impaired gambling addict. He'd dropped out of high school in the 1960s and, from that point on, spent most of his life at local horse and dog tracks. His brother, Charles Miller, told Gonzalez that his sibling had been born a "waterhead" baby, though the family didn't realize the effect it had on his brain at the time. "Warren just takes his bags and leaves," Charles Miller said. "You can say things to him over and over, but he just doesn't understand."

By the 1990s, Warren Miller had found a steady stream of income through ten-percenting, a relatively common practice in racetracks around the country. The IRS requires that a gambler file tax form W-2G for any winning bet that pays out more than $600. If the ticket pays more than $5,000, then 28 percent of the winnings is automatically withheld and submitted to the IRS. There's no automatic withholding, however, for amounts between $600 and $5,000, just filing the W-2G form. Here's where people like Miller make money. Gamblers offer front men a proportion of the winnings to cash the ticket using their own Social Security numbers. That way, the gambler doesn't have to declare the winnings on his income taxes.

The practice, termed ten-percenting because that's traditionally been the commission, can also involve track employees. In this scenario, the gambler presents a winning ticket to a teller -- whom he's likely tipped well in the past -- and is then given 90 to 95 percent of its value. The teller doesn't actually cash the ticket until he finds a front man on the betting floor.

Between 1993 and 1998, Miller cashed $2.6 million worth of W-2G's. Despite that, he'd never filed an income tax return, a glaring discrepancy that the IRS computers picked up. Miller didn't respond to written notifications by the IRS. Then the case was handed to Special Agent Julio LaRosa of the department's criminal division in South Florida.

LaRosa, bantam in build and demeanor, and his partner, Art VanDesande, began following Miller's trail of W-2G's in the area's horse and dog raceways. They finally found Miller at Hollywood, and the bettor immediately knew LaRosa and VanDesande were IRS agents, LaRosa testified during the trial. Miller admitted that he was ten-percenting and knew it was against the law, but he would not name any of the other people who had been involved.

Soon after, LaRosa began shadowing Miller -- who didn't even break stride in his illegal avocation -- and discovered that numerous tellers were involved. A good many had worked at the track for 20 years or more, and they'd become close. On the first floor's main line, tellers sit mere feet from their neighbors; everyone knew what was going on. Some tellers would call out "Warren!" when they needed a big ticket cashed. Tellers working on the facility's upper floors would routinely call their co-workers on the first floor to locate Miller, who usually knew his services were needed because the track's tote board indicates winning bets of $600 or more.

Once the investigators had identified the tellers involved, they confronted several. One of them, Madeline Mixon, a middle-aged mother, agreed to cooperate and wear a secret microphone. She'd worked at the track for about 20 years and said she at first shied away from ten-percenting, but during the 1990s, she got desperate for cash after a bout with cancer.

When word of the IRS investigation spread, the cheating dropped off. Cindi Smith, a teller since 1978, took W-G2 forms that had been presigned by Miller and burned them in her backyard. She warned Mixon, "If you tell the truth, we all go tumbling down." Another teller advised wearing surgical gloves so as not to leave fingerprints on the tickets.

At one point, the investigation turned toward Joe Ryan, the 59-year-old operational manager of the track, but he passed away in August 2000. The probe had also targeted four other ten-percenters who operated like Miller, but two died during the lengthy probe, and prosecutors could not locate the other two. "They were going after something grand," asserts Carl Lida, an attorney who represented one of the tellers. "And then the principals of that investigation died."

A federal grand jury indicted five tellers and Miller in May 2003. "Some of them got a deal because the government reduced the amount they were being held responsible for," says Randee Golder, who represents Miller, now 51 years old. "But there was no deal there for Warren. The government used him as the focal point for the whole thing." Golder contends that her client has difficulty understanding right from wrong because of brain damage. For example, when Miller made his first appearance in court, the judge asked him what he did for a living. "I'm a ten-percenter," he replied.

Four tellers pleaded guilty earlier in January to filing fraudulent tax documents. In February, a jury found Miller, Smith, and Thaer Ayoub, who had been supervising tellers on the main line, guilty of conspiracy to defraud and filing false tax documents. Smith was also convicted for witness tampering for urging Mixon not to cooperate.

During her sentencing, Smith told Gonzalez that track officials had been well-aware of the ten-percenting. "It was almost considered a courtesy for the customers because the money would go back to the track anyway," said the 52-year-old Smith, whose shoulder-length gray hair framed her flush-red face. "There were doctors, lawyers, even judges doing it." Smith and Ayoub were sentenced to one year in jail. Miller got 18 months.

*******

When William J. Syms Sr. proposed erecting the Hollywood Kennel Club in the early 1930s, many considered it an absurd notion. There were already three tracks in the Miami area. Not only that, the site he chose -- at today's intersection of Pembroke Road and Federal Highway -- was at that time a barren landscape. Syms was persuasive enough, however, to bring in backers, and construction began in 1934. After the investors got cold feet, Syms finished the track late that year with his own money.

The morning of December 12, 1934, was icy. Temperatures that night had dived well below freezing, making it the most frigid night anyone in South Florida could recall. Still, 200 dog race fans journeyed to the track for opening day. Swaddled in winter attire, the crowd gawked as Buddy Hawk zoomed across the finish line. Those sharp enough to bet on him to win walked away with $62 -- a helluva lot of money in the midst of the Great Depression. When the champ and his owner stepped into the winner's circle, they were given a trophy by no less than Damon Runyon, the Guys and Dolls author who'd gained fame with his stories about racing and gangsters. The crowd bet about $14,000 that day, equivalent to about $200,000 today.

Despite the tough economic times, the track grew steadily more successful, adding a clubhouse in 1940. Each year, it increased its handle, which is the total amount wagered. Attendance also grew progressively, except during World War II, when gasoline rationing curtailed the races. After the war ended in early 1945, track managers tried to make up for lost time by holding a 40-day season in the fall, then a regular season beginning in December.

Hollywood Kennel radiated class in those days, and the celebrities (and fading stars) took every opportunity to bask in that glow. Ceremonies at the finish line included the likes of Milton Berle, the Ritz Brothers (the original madcap comedians), Buster Keaton, Mansfield, and William Holden, who showed up in 1953 the same week he won the Academy Award for Stalag 17. Heavyweight boxing champs like Jack Dempsey and Primo Carnera were regulars.

During the 1960-61 season, the track pulled in more than 500,000 visitors who bet $20 million (about $125 million in today's dollars). On February 2, 1965, the track hosted a record crowd of 10,832. The owners spent $60,000 tearing down the old grandstand in 1973 (about the same amount it had cost to build it 40 years earlier) Its replacement, a 9,000-seater, was built on the west side of the track and opened for the 1973-74 season.

The good times continued to roll well into the 1980s. The track had its all-time record attendance of 14,577 on March 4, 1978. Its handle didn't peak until the evening of February 5, 1982, when visitors bet a little more than $1.22 million.

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."

Stefo moved to Miami in the late 1950s and was introduced to dog racing when he took a job as a driver for a wealthy European who had a penchant for the dogs. "He couldn't drive a car," he says. "I drove him to the track. Every time he'd win, he'd give me money. Sometimes if he didn't feel like going, he'd give me the money to be there for him. That was my job. We'd follow the tracks as they opened."

He had a series of petty run-ins with the law -- excess parking tickets, expired license plates, some bounced checks -- and usually gravitated to the seamy side of life. In the 1960s, he recruited actresses for the makers of hard-core stag films. "I was finding women, driving around, finding places to film. Partying every fucking night. The fucking girls came in, and we took measurements -- how big their tits, their ass, we measured." He pantomimes a tape measure around his chest and laughs.

He also supported himself by helping women become U.S. citizens. "I used to sponsor girls," he explains nonchalantly. "You know, they'd give me a hundred dollars. You keep the girl for a month, month and a half, get an apartment. After that, I'd find another woman."

And there was always money to be made from the dogs. "There was 10,000, 15,000 people here sometimes," he recalls of Hollywood. "They'd enjoy themselves. There was music, nice, soft classic music. No TV. They dressed up. Now people show up like that." He points to a guy in dirty shorts and a beat-up T-shirt.

Like every handicapper, his style is one part experience, one part hunch, and one part superstition. "I look at the kennel," he says. "Sometimes a kennel is hot; sometimes it's cold. It's like you are -- you're lucky or unlucky. If this kennel has been cold, I don't bet on the dogs. For the whole evening.

"Listen, if you bet every race, you're going to lose. If you don't bet every race, you're going to go home with something. It's like, if you go with every woman, you're going to have AIDS. You know?"

*******

Handicappers are pissed at the dogs, cursed by the dogs, blessed by the dogs. They just can't quite get ahead on the dogs.

"Nobody's gonna tell me nothin' about it," Larry Milano exclaims about the noble pursuit of greyhound betting. He's sitting beside one of his track buddies, the purblind Roberto, during a weekday evening of live racing. "I know the dogs like the back of my hand -- and I'm still losing! We're all losing, right?"

Then he turns to Roberto, who's poring over the program for the next race. Roberto grunts but not enough to signify a yea or nay. "And this guy's got the spyglass out! He's even got the spyglass on the dogs."

At 83 years old, Larry rarely misses a day or evening of racing. He's five feet tall ("I get into movies half price," he jokes.) His voice is high-pitched, and he laughs in machine-gun bursts through his steeply curved Roman nose. Today, like most days, he wears brown polyester pants, a baby-blue zippered coat, a plaid cotton shirt, and a "Hollywood Greyhound Track" hat. His yellowed white socks droop around his ankles. Everything he's wearing is overdue for laundering by a month or so. Exceedingly upbeat, Larry lives in a condo 12 blocks north of the track that he bought a decade ago for $26,000. Until last year, he pumped gas at a nearby Shell station. He repeats himself often.

"I got a thousand friends down here," he says. "When you're not a wise guy, you can make a lot of friends. I do mind my own business. I do this instead of staying home. I'm a single man. You can't stay home alone."

He points toward Roberto. "Dogs are tough. He'll tell you."

"Very tough," Roberto replies absently.

Larry laughs raucously. "You win today and lose the next five days," he says.

A rotund regular with long, messy gray hair walks up behind him. "I like the eight and seven in this race," the man touts. Then he walks away.

"Nobody's gonna tell me nothin'," Larry declares.

"I'm an old-timer here. Twenty years," he continues. "I'm from Jersey. Orange, Jersey. I was a union man for 20 years. Construction... More guys owe me money here: 'Give me 20.' 'Give me 30.' 'I've got nothin' to eat.' 'I need gas.' They'll bet their last dollar on the dogs!"

"Hey," he asks Roberto, "about 75, 80 percent are losers here, wouldn't you say?"

"More," Roberto grunts.

Maxine, a 60-something, full-figured woman standing nearby, listens to Larry talk to a New Times writer. Although she doesn't want her last name used, she seems concerned about the old man's opinion of the odds of winning on greyhounds. "If you're writing about the track," she interrupts, "you better make it really look good. That's all I can tell you. You better lie a lot. All right?" She adds later, "This stuff about losing, you can't say that. You have to write a nice story, you know? Embellish it."

Roberto's perfecta picks are in the ballpark tonight. He may not be hot, but he's definitely warm. The problem is, he's got no cash reserves, always a few dollars from bust. Toward the end of the night, he decides on 1, 4, and 6 as the likely first-, second-, and third-place winners in the next race. He wants to bet a trifecta, but he's short a dollar. He frets enough minutes away that the race begins. Thirty seconds later, the one dog rushes across the finish line, followed by the four, then the six. Roberto, standing close to the giant-screen TV near the snack bar, smacks his program against his hand and crumples.

Larry is as cheerful as ever. "If he'd played 1, 4, 6 for two bucks, watch what he gets," he says, awaiting the trifecta payout to appear on the TV set. "He didn't play, so he's out."

"It paid $295," Maxine chirps.

Larry roars with laughter. "He had the numbers! But if you don't play, you don't get paid. Why didn't you call me? I would've given you a dollar."

Roberto mumbles.

"I would have given it to you. I've given it to you before."

"These are bad days," Roberto murmurs.

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