Heartbreak at 45 mph

Scenes from the life of a racing greyhound.

One thing about greyhounds: They aren't likely to die of old age. When dogs turn 4 or 5 and are finished racing, she claims, "it's more cost-efficient for trainers and owners to kill a dog than to house and feed it."

Pro-racing folks balk at that claim, saying that today, most greyhounds are humanely retired, not killed. But in 2002, Alabama investigators found the bodies of thousands of dead greyhounds on the property of 68-year-old Robert Rhodes, a part-time security guard at a track in Pensacola. Rhodes admitted using a .22 caliber rifle to shoot more than 2,000 dogs from all over Florida during the 20 years he worked at the track. He was paid $10 per dog, which he said covered the cost of digging the holes across his 18-acre property. Investigators called the graveyard "a Dachau for dogs."

Joe Trudden says he gives every dog a dip in the whirlpool and a hand massage after a race.
C. Stiles
Joe Trudden says he gives every dog a dip in the whirlpool and a hand massage after a race.
Dozens of retired racers at Friends of Greyhounds are waiting for new homes.
C. Stiles
Dozens of retired racers at Friends of Greyhounds are waiting for new homes.

All across the open room, grown men are shouting at televisions. "Come on, Two! Move your ass, Two!" The betting parlor at the Mardi Gras racetrack consists of a long line of TV sets simulcasting races from most of the 13 tracks in the state, plus a row of betting machines and cashier windows. Quiet, white-haired men in polyester pants and mismatched jackets from the '70s sit at Formica tables, clenching handfuls of betting tickets. A group of men in their 40s — the youngest in the room — prefer to stand. A few businessmen, still donning the shiny shoes and pressed slacks they wore to the office, wait impatiently as the dogs they've bet on are loaded into starting boxes in Daytona, Jacksonville, West Palm Beach. Collectively, these men — or the soft, folded American bills they're handing over — are the lifeblood of the industry.

The scene is a far cry from racing's heyday. Even now, on a "busy" Friday night, only about 200 men (and virtually no women) are here to watch the greyhounds. The throngs of humanity around the slot machines and poker tables dwarf the dog-betting crowd.

By the time I march up to the offices to interview the director of dog racing at Mardi Gras, I've heard so many horrific details about the industry, I'm wondering how these people can sleep at night.

But when I meet Aldo Leone, he is no monster. He's a mild, friendly man with short hair, an easy smile, and a slight New England accent. His office is small, and the wood-paneled walls are covered with paintings of greyhounds. He tells me he got into the business as a lead-out (the track employee who walks the dog from the paddock to the gate) in Hollywood when he was 16. He's 46 now. It was just a job when he started, but he fell in love with the dogs.

Leone says "radical animal rights groups" like Grey2K take rare incidents out of context and sensationalize them to scare people away from a family-friendly industry. "They'll tell you the dogs don't like it, that they're being abused. They want to shut these tracks down, but they don't realize they'll just be putting more dogs out on the street." If not for racing, he says, the breed probably would have died out centuries ago.

"But aren't thousands of dogs euthanized every year?" I ask.

Leone says that the antiracing groups' breeding figures are "ridiculous." He says that 98 percent of racing dogs are adopted out and that the other 2 percent return to breeding farms. "Retired greyhounds are very popular. As you probably know, they make great pets." Then, without a hint of irony, he adds, "They're becoming a commodity."

Leone says that because Mardi Gras is the top track in the state, the dogs who can't make it here "grade off" to other tracks, like being sent down from the big leagues to a farm team. Although I'd spoken to a former track veterinarian who told me he treated about one broken bone per week, Leone says that injuries occur at a rate of "less than one a month" and that most are "minor, one dog stepping on another's foot, that sort of thing."

And that incident with BB's Story Book? Leone says that night was the only time he's seen an accident with the lure. "That was a terrible thing," he says. He stares out his office window. The sun is setting on the track. "Nobody ever wants to see that."

Before leaving the track, I walk through the trainer's area behind the paddock. There are at least a dozen pickup trucks, each with a load of barking dogs waiting to go back to the kennel, 15 miles away in Hialeah.

A thin man with a mustache and dark-brown hair parted on the side — the old-fashioned way — walks a panting, exhausted brindled dog. The dog has just come in third, earning roughly $80 that will be split between the trainer and owner. The man hoses him off and walks him through a cooling pool.

This is Joe Trudden, a trainer and the owner of Tru-Paws Kennels. He wears a polo tucked into his unbelted Levi's. He tells me that if I want the truth about racing, I can go to the compound to see his kennel.

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