An exuberant publicist might be tempted to describe the $125,000 World Greyhound Classic as the Kentucky Derby of dog racing. But there are some apparent differences between the two events.
When the entrants come onto Hollywood Greyhound Track, they are not identified by jockey wearing colorful silks. Instead, each is wearing a little doggie jacket decorated with an American flag.
Instead of a band striking up "My Old Kentucky Home," the track plays a tinny recording of a Sousa march over the public-address system.
And instead of being draped with a garland of roses in the winner's circle, the victor gets scratched behind the ears by his admirers.
But even though the nature of the animal insures that a major dog race can't have quite the glamor or the class of a thoroughbred event, the world classic is a very big deal in greyhound circles.
Fifty-six dogs had entered the competition in late January. After a series of nine elimination heats, they were narrowed to the final eight who would race Saturday night. But even though they had run against each other so often, the relative merits of the dogs was still a mystery.
The chief source of the mystery was Luskey Castle, who on his best nights could look like the reincarnation of the immortal Downing. The box would open, Luskey Castle would pop out five lengths on top and the race would be over. On other nights, however, he could look more listless than the worst Grade D bum.
"Six of Luskey's performances have had a degree of brilliance about them," said his Irish-born trainer, Don Cuddy. "Three have been in this game for 45 years, and I've had access to the intelligentsia of the whole greyhound world. The reasons -- whether cosmic or otherwise -- are still obscure to me. wHow, after all, do you get inside a greyhound's head?"
Cuddy trained another of the dogs in the final, and this one he could understand better. Banker Hap always tried his best, and had won 11 of his 17 races at Hollywood this winter. "He may be less brilliant than Luskey." Cuddy conceded, "but you have to give him credit for all he's done."
If Luskey Castle's hallmark was brilliance and Banker Hap's was consistency, the trademark of the defending classic champion, Enisled, was brains.
"Once in a while," said kennel owner O. K. Duke, "you see a dog who could break from the five hole and go to the turn and never get touched, and you'd think he had eyes in his butt. Well, Enisled is like that. He maneuvers very well.
"I wish you could train a dog to do that. But you can't."
In fact, there aren't many things you can train a dog to do. Their ability is largely God-given; the racing habits are inborn and almost immutable.
But in any gambling game with a $125,000 put at stake, the players will try to take every edge they can. Or at least the outside world believes they will try to take every edge they can. So any time a dog's name came up in a prerace discussion, there would be a wise guy to give you a wink and whisper, "I hear they're going to jack him up tonight."
"Have you heard about the machine?" one of the wise guys whispered to me. I looked blank. "The sonar machine," he said. "They've got this gizmo with a dial from 1 to 12 and they aim it at the dog and normally turn it to about 1 1/2. I heard they turned it up to 8 for Derek's Cadillac once and he just about went through the roof."
In addition to these James Bondish conspiracy theories, everybody in the sport assumes that every trainer jacks up every dog in every big race by letting him chase a live rabbit, catch it and have it for dinner. Because of SPCA squeamishness, this is officially forbidden, but if one-tenth of the rumors can be believed, there isn't a live jackrabbit left in south Florida.
Their preparations complete, trainers and owners of the eight entrants gathered in the Hollywood dining room Saturday night to await the big event. For a veteran of comparable horse-racing functions, where Whitneys and Vanderbilts and Phippses get together to chat about their yachts, this was a surprisingly democratic assemblage.
Daryl Brumage, the owner of Banker Hap, is a former truck driver from Colorado. Bill Andhor, the owner of longshot Doc's Moonshadow, operates the photo-finish camera at Hialeah. They could be represented in a stakes race because dog racing is such an affordable hobby. Andhor had spent $500 for Doc's Moonshadow and paid $60 a month to maintain him at a puppy farm in his first year. After that, he turned the dog over to a racing kennel that paid all the expenses and returned him 40 percent of the earnings.
So the $30,000 first-place pot of the classic was a major jackpot for the owners involved Saturday night, and they weren't joking about the nonglamor of the game when the greyhounds had their little doggie jackets removed and were placed in the starting box.
The box opened and Luskey Castle popped out as if somebody had turned his sonar machine up to 10. But Banker Hap raced up inside him, and the two were abreast of each other as they reached the first turn. There, Banker Hap gave Luskey just enough of a nudge to discourage his precocious but gutless kennelmate.
Banker Hap was challenged on the backstretch by Kunta Troubles, but discouraged him. Then Doc's Moonshadow started flying up the rail and, for a moment, looked as if he were going to win it all. But in a split second, one rival dropped in front of Doc's Moonshadow, and another drove up inside him and carried him to the outside fence.
Banker Hap won clearly, with Kunta Troubles second, Luskey Castle fifth and Doc's Moonshadow an illstarred sixth.
In the winner's circle, they draped Banker Hap with a little green jacket that said "Champion," posed him for a hundred pictures and gave him a well-deserved kitchy-koo behind the ear. In the meantime, the owner of Doc's Moonshadow could only relfect, "Well, that's dog racing."