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It may not have mint juleps and gaudy hats, but this year's $150,000 Greyhound World Classic — billed as "The Kentucky Derby of Dog Racing" — featured two dogs that had owners, trainers, and industry players buzzing like touts at Churchill Downs. At the Mardi Gras Casino in Hallandale Beach, Flying Stanley, the returning World Classic winner that some call the Tiger Woods of dog racing, faced off in a field of eight against Hallo Gold Acre, a seemingly unbeatable hometown champ. It was a classic match-up, yet what seemed to be illuminated beneath Mardi Gras' bright yellow lights were the death throes of an industry that once was all but synonymous with South Florida — a prospect that saddens some and thrills others.
In the 1980s, the World Classic drew nearly 15,000 spectators a year and was broadcast on national television. "It wasn't long ago that this was the biggest spectator sport in South Florida," said Aldo Leone, director of dog racing at Mardi Gras. Leone started work at the track as a dog walker in 1979 and never left. "Rich people, poor people, they'd sit outside on a nice night like this and watch the dogs," he said.
The 34th annual running of the Classic, in late March, drew close to 1,000 people. While trainers, owners, and their families gathered for a gourmet meal, the dogs were housed on the other side of the track. Behind thick glass doors and across a cinder-block room, they peered out from behind the bars of cages stacked two-high on every wall. Waiting.
When a human enters the kennel, ears perk up. Some dogs whimper and yelp. Most are lying down. The standing dogs have dense muscles rippling across their bodies, especially the thick haunches above their narrow hind legs. "They're finely tuned to run, all muscle," said Franklyn Delise, a judge who oversees the paddock at Mardi Gras. "They're like professional athletes, but they're also still dogs. They wag their tails when they're happy. They perk up if they see someone they recognize."
Flying Stanley, a long, gold dog with brown streaks, sniffed at visitors and chomped on the bars of his cage. He was born in Kansas, near the Greyhound Hall of Fame in Abilene. He's won virtually every major stakes race in the country, including the 2007 World Classic and the Derby Lane Million in St. Petersburg. He's already pulled in more money than any other dog in racing history — over $700,000 says Vera Filipelli, an industry expert who works as a publicist for the Derby Lane track. "He's the strongest runner I've seen in 30 years of dog racing," Filipelli said. "Stanley always has to have a strong male lead him out and put him in the box because he tugs so hard on the leash nobody can handle him."
Directly above Stanley in the kennel was Hallo Gold Acre. The bright white dog with the stringy tail was a legend at Mardi Gras before he was two years old. Earlier this year, Gold Acre won 15 straight races, breaking the track record previously held by his sire, Hallo West Acre. In the late '90s, West Acre made the World Classic finals a record three years in a row and won it once. "Gold Acre is a special dog. He's an even more natural runner than his father," said Monica Rigo-Smith, a Swiss-born trainer. Along with her husband, Dennis Smith, she works Gold Acre at her kennel in Miami, which she calls "the Palace." Before a big race, she gives Gold Acre cooked noodles. "He's just an 80-pound baby and he loves to run. If he focuses, he can leave any dog out there behind him." As the big race neared, he was lying still, quiet, his wide eyes gazing at the humans in front of his cage.
These small cells are high on the list of problems cited by anti-greyhound-racing groups who say the dogs are mistreated. "Our main concern is the confinement," said Christine Dorchak, president and general counsel of Grey2K USA, a national nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts that works to end dog racing nationwide. "Dogs spend up to 20 hours each day in cages barely large enough for them to stand up or turn around. And greyhounds suffer serious injuries while racing. In states that report injuries, reported injuries include cardiac arrest, seizures, and paralysis. But states like Florida don't require the tracks to report injuries or dispositions. The public is expected to just take their word for it."
Dorchak believes the decline in dog racing's popularity is a result of the public becoming more aware of the dark side of industry: dogs testing positive for cocaine, reports of greyhounds being shot, the statistics on culling that show that breeders euthanize at least 2,000 puppies a year. Greyhound racing is legal in only 16 states — and of those, Oregon and South Dakota no longer conduct live races. Since 2004, 11 tracks have either closed or ended live racing. Almost half of the remaining tracks in America are in Florida.
"Greyhound racing has existed under the radar for decades now, but thankfully that's finally changing," Dorchak said. "People can be beating or mistreating a greyhound at Mardi Gras or Flagler [Race Track in Miami]" and nothing happens, while "someone can be mistreating an animal a mile down the road and be arrested and put in prison."
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."
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.