New Dogs, Old Tricks

The future of dog racing clouds a classic race

Leone said Mardi Gras does everything it can to eliminate abuse, and the track adopts out about 95 percent of its retired race dogs. "Some go back to the farms to breed too," he said.

Mardi Gras deals with about one serious injury per week, according to David Goetez, the track veterinarian. Most are broken bones, he said. "Greyhounds are pretty tough dogs. You see them get bumped and roll over and sometimes they can just get up and keep running." Goetez has adopted two retired greyhounds. "They are the most docile dogs. I like to call them my 45-mile-per-hour couch potatoes."

Back at the trackside VIP section, Rigo-Smith was nervous. She sipped wine and went down the program, reassuring herself that her dog could beat any one of the others. "Obviously the eight [Flying Stanley] will be the toughest to beat. The five [Starz Jenko] was a great runner, but now he's washed up. But he did finish ahead of Stanley in one qualifying race."

Winner Starz Jenko
Winner Starz Jenko

Vera Filipelli was seated near the track discussing the favorite. "Stanley's post position concerns me a little," she said. "When he comes to that first turn, he doesn't like to have a dog on his left. The sport is so unpredictable. One little bump or bad start or anything — anything can happen."

Handlers take the dogs two at a time from their cages. Before the race, each dog is weighed and outfitted with a colorful blanket marking his post position. A judge inspects tattoos on the dogs' ears to verify their identities.

The track handlers take the dogs for a short walk around a patch of grass outside the paddock. One by one they walk by, clearing their systems before the big race. Even muzzled and numbered, they are graceful, elegant creatures, sleek in design, adored by cultures across the world for centuries. Ancient Egyptians considered greyhounds royalty.

A man in a grey suit and T-shirt looked at the parade of canines and shouted, "You the man, Jenko! You the man!" Starz Jenko, the five dog, gave a glance of recognition. The man encouraging him was John Farmer, Jenko's trainer. Farmer explained that Jenko's owner, Jack Sherck from Abilene, Kansas, didn't want to enter Jenko in the World Classic. "He didn't want to race against Stanley," Farmer said. "It wasn't worth the $3,000 entry fee." Farmer secured a sponsor, however, who agreed to pay the $3,000 in exchange for half of anything Jenko won.

The race was 30 seconds of blurry fury. Stanley went off at nine-to-five odds and Gold Acre at two-to-one. The lure, a white piece of Styrofoam shaped like a small greyhound, whizzed by the gate. The dogs yelped. Then the gate opened and they were off.

Stanley got a bad break out of the box. Gold Acre came out second, moving quickly toward the inside. Jenko took an early lead. Stanley couldn't make a move at the first turn and went very wide. By the home stretch, Gold Acre had closed the gap on Jenko, and Stanley had closed on Gold Acre. But Starz Jenko, the washed-up racer, held both dogs off for the victory.

Monica Rigo-Smith, disappointed with Gold Acre's second-place finish, congratulated Farmer, who got a Waterford Crystal trophy. Someone put a blue blanket over Jenko that read "2008 Mardi Gras World Classic Champion." Farmer and his family posed for pictures with Jenko and Mardi Gras employees. Then it was just Farmer, the dog, and the trophy. There may be increasingly fewer places where they can display their skills, and none where they can escape mounting criticism of their sport, but for now they were undisputed winners. Jenko wagged his tail.

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