At 15 minutes before midnight Saturday Ray Randle, a tall and taciturn greyhound man, stood woozily on the terrace of the executive wing of the Flagler Dog Track in Miami. None of the 8,700 fans at the track felt worse. Earlier that day Randle had been in bed with the flu, but, as he put it, "I' da come to the track tonight on a stretcher," for he had two starters, Copier and Discreetly, in the 12th and final event of the night, the $80,000 International Classic, the richest race in dogdom.
Randle stood quite still for the 37.44 seconds that it took eight of the best greyhounds in the country to cover 1,940 feet on the track at "Fabulous Flagler," and then suddenly he felt much better. Thanks to Discreetly, he now had a personal role in the pageantry of the awards ceremony that the fine Flagler minds had concocted. There was an actual script:
HOUSE LIGHTS UP
TRACK LIGHTS OUT
SPOTLIGHT PICKS UP WINNING GREYHOUND as he returns to take a bow in front of presentation platform wearing International Classic blanket which is placed upon him at Paddock entrance before....
And there was Discreetly, a nice-enough-looking hound, panting happily under that fancy blanket, while all manner of beauty queens and tuxedoed gentry served as a backdrop.
Eighty thousand dollars may seem like a lot of money to lavish on a dog race, but not when the sport's soaring attendance and betting figures are considered. Last year admissions at the 34 tracks in seven states totaled a record $11 million plus, and the pari-mutuel handle was nearly half a billion dollars. In Florida the 16 greyhound tracks dominate pari-mutuel betting. In 1966 the state's dog tracks handled $255 million—$76 million more than the Thoroughbreds.
The sport is a modern one, but the breed is ancient. Excavations in Mesopotamia date the greyhound back to 5000 B.C. The breed is mentioned in the Bible (Proverbs 30: 29-31), by King Solomon who said, "There be three things which go well, yea...are comely in going:...a greyhound; an he goat also; and a king against whom there is no rising up." The pharaohs of Egypt used the greyhound to chase hares, and Rameses II and Cleopatra are supposed to have been among its dedicated fanciers. The Romans brought greyhounds to the British Isles, where the dogs became the special favorites of the aristocracy. Greyhounds were introduced into the U.S. in numbers in the 19th Century, when they were used to chase jackrabbits and coyotes on the plains, and Kansas still ranks today as the center of U.S. greyhound breeding.
For years coursing enthusiasts believed that greyhounds, which pursue their quarry by sight, would chase only live game, but in 1919 an Arkansas promoter named O. P. Smith devised a wheeled contraption that chugged around a track towing an artificial rabbit. The lure was first put into operation in Emeryville, Calif. The dogs went after it, but the track failed because betting was not allowed.
Smith went to Tulsa—betting was allowed there—and then he moved to Florida where a dog track was opened in 1922 at Hialeah on the site of the present horse track. Other dog tracks followed, including an opulent one built in Miami Beach by Tex Rickard. Smith, who died in 1929, never saw the Miami Beach track, even though he lived in Miami. A fortune teller once told him he would die crossing a body of water, and he refused to risk Biscayne Bay.
During the '20s dog-racing conditions were crude, and so were some of the enthusiasts, most notably Al Capone. Gangster interest in greyhounds gave the sport an unsavory air, and it took a long time for it to sanitize its image. "It's an unfair rap against greyhound racing," says one dogman. "Those guys were interested in a lot of things, including horses and fighters. But greyhound racing always got blamed."
In the '20s, tracks were put up with the understanding that public officials would look the other way—which made the very act of opening one a stimulating gamble. A 1926 Miami newspaper headline asked, BISCAYNE TRACK SCHEDULED TO OPEN TOMORROW? Biscayne did open, but only five of eight races were run the first day, because a big tomcat got tangled up in the motor of the lure.
If a sheriff did make a move to close down a track, the custom was for the operator to ask the judge for an immediate injunction against the action. The judge would grant the injunction, then take a vacation until the meet was over. Tracks often were raided. "It could get pretty perilous," says Bill Ewalt, long an owner-trainer. "In some towns you had to be faster than your dogs to get your kennel cages out of town ahead of the law. If you ran second, they had their own kind of cage for you." Another veteran owner, F. B. Stutz, says, "Dog racing used to be in disrepute. Before my daughter got married, she told her fiancé, 'Promise me you'll never go into the dog-racing business.' People actually were ashamed of being in it. I always felt like apologizing for it, myself." Now that dog racing has become, as its boosters call it, the sport of queens, Stutz, a thoughtful sort who reads Spinoza, William James and Chekhov, sort of hankers for the old days. "The camaraderie is gone today," he says. "It's a business, strictly a business."
There have been two significant landmarks in dog racing's long march back to respectability. The first came in 1931 when Florida—soon to be followed by Massachusetts and some other heavily populated states—legalized betting. The next came in 1948 with the introduction of the automatic "self-grading" system. This was devised by Tom Benner, director of racing at Flagler, and it is now standard, with slight variations, at other tracks in the U.S. The system is simplicity itself, and it gives bettors the assurance that no dog competing in a race is a ringer and that all the dogs are of the same caliber. There are six classifications for the dogs, A, B, C, D, E and maiden. A dog that wins a maiden race is moved up to compete against class D dogs. From there on, the dog moves up or down, depending on how he finishes. If the dog is really a "dog," he drops into class E. If he fails to finish first, second, third or fourth in four E starts, he is barred from racing at the meeting.
Flagler is not the biggest dog track in the country, but it is generally held to be the classiest. It stands for what greyhound tracks are coming to be: a very nice place to go broke in record time. The man responsible for Flagler's class, and a lot of the upgrading of dog racing, is the track's owner, Isadore (Issie) Hecht, a pink and pleasant Kewpie doll who also happens to be chairman of the board of the West Indies Fruit Company.
Actually, his forte is bananas, and he can talk about bananas for hours. He can also talk about dogs and has all sorts of ideas on how more and more people can be enticed to go to the dogs. At one meeting of the American Greyhound Track Operators Association, a fellow owner jumped up, pointed at Issie and shouted, "I'm not going to let a damn banana peddler tell me how to run my track." He probably should, however, because Hecht knows lots of businesses. He is the head of a syndicate building a $7 million post office in Los Angeles and is the big man in another group that is constructing one of the largest apartment complexes in the South.
Hecht and some associates bought Flagler for $2.5 million in 1953. The track's average annual handle was $14 million, and Issie thought there was room for improvement. He started by tearing down the old plant and putting in a new one. He added a clubhouse, a restaurant and a lavish room for private parties. All told, he put almost $7 million back into Flagler, and the investment is paying off well. The handle should exceed $30 million this year and is expected to reach $35 million in 1968. The track is now formally called Fabulous Flagler and is always billed as The Nation's Greyhound Showplace. The clubhouse food is superb, equal to the best in Miami. Track police were once assigned to watch a man who disappeared every night after dinner. They followed him to a jai alai game. It turned out he just liked the food at Flagler. Even the dogs under guard in the "lock out" room before a race are coddled. Incidental music is piped in to soothe their nerves. A closed-circuit TV camera keeps an eye on the room, and guards stand outside to make sure no one slips a greyhound a loaded hamburger.
Hecht has done so well with Flagler that when a make-believe oil derrick was being erected last week as an infield decoration for the International Classic—the event was honoring an old trainer, Arch DeGeer, and the first greyhound derby, which was held in Oklahoma 46 years ago—a trainer remarked: "Issie will probably strike oil."
But come Saturday night it was Ray Randle who struck it rich. Copier, in the No. 2 box, was the favorite at 3 to 2. Randle's other entry, Discreetly, in the 4 box, was 9 to 2, the fourth choice in the field of eight. Standing next to Randle at racetime was Ken Hutchings, whose Cleve Commel was a primary contender at 8 to 5. Cleve Commel has stamina but, unfortunately for Hutchings, his dog had drawn box No. 8, the outside post position.
The mechanical rabbit moved down the track toward the starting box. "There goes Speedy," intoned the track announcer. As the rabbit sped past the starting box the flip-top doors snapped open and the dogs burst onto the sand in pursuit. Discreetly, known for his early speed, broke first. Copier was third, and Cleve Commel was fifth. As the field headed into the first turn, Discreetly clung to the rail, going 40 mph after the rabbit. Randle's wife, Helen, who was seated nearby on the terrace, shouted. "I don't know what I was shouting," she recalled, "but everyone turned around to look at me." Randle was impassive as Discreetly sailed into the grandstand straightaway five lengths in front of the pack. He said later he was surprised to see the dog out in front, but all he could think of was Cleve Commel, now running a strong third. In the far stretch Discreetly hung on as Cleve Commel began to move up. As they rounded the far turn and came to the stretch, Discreetly was four lengths ahead of Cleve Commel, and all Randle can remember thinking is, "Well, anyway, he broke in front, and that's what he had to do." Only when Discreetly flashed past the wire two and a half lengths in front did Randle believe that he had won. Hutchings grabbed him and said, "I couldn't beat you."
For winning, Discreetly earned $25,000, which Randle will split 65-35 with Glen Garverick, the owner. Randle had leased Discreetly and Copier from Garverick when the dogs were six months old. Garverick is a breeder in Ocala, Fla., but the sport of greyhound racing has grown so complicated that it is now customary for a breeder to pay attention only to breeding and rent out his dogs to a man like Randle who campaigns on the tracks.
Randle's share of the proceeds, $16,250, will go back into dogs, for greyhounds are his only interest. Until 10 years ago he was partners in a greyhound-breeding business with two of his brothers. They had a 160-acre breeding farm near Wichita, but they broke up and went on their own when the state rammed a turnpike through their property. While together, the Randle brothers handled Real Huntsman, one of the best greyhounds of all time and holder of the American record for consecutive wins—27.
With a little luck, Discreetly could break the alltime greyhound earning record of $97,000, which is held by Miss Whirl. Only two years old last week, Discreetly is a young dog to have won so rich a prize as the International Classic. He has already earned $34,000 in his six months of racing and this week he goes against Be Brave, the winner of last Saturday's Derby Lane Classic at St. Petersburg, in a best-of-three match for $10,000, winner take all. If Discreetly remains sound, he can race until he is almost 5, and then will be put out to stud.
Not that Ray Randle worries about how Discreetly's luck will run—or his own. He prefers just to count the winnings and stick to the dogs. "I'm afraid," he says, "that it would be bad luck for me to be superstitious."