By the time they got around to running the final [5/16]ths of a mile of the $115,000 World Greyhound Classic at the posh Hollywood, Fla. track last Saturday night, the "world" had been narrowed to eight American dogs, although two of them boasted long and illustrious Irish bloodlines. No matter. As Tommy Lynch, the track's general manager and resident wit, said, "When you send seven guys out to face a firing squad, who checks passports?"
Prosifying Lynch's metaphor, a large, rambunctious puppy name of Downing was the favorite, so much so that in the eyes of the record 12,859 fans who turned out for the third running of the race, the other seven entries might have been alley-bred mongrels from Missoula. Which says a lot about a greyhound which won't be two years old until Saint Patrick's Day, and one that just seven weeks ago was making the second start of his career, in a Grade D race.
As a matter of fact, Downing was running in the Classic almost by accident. The red-brindle 75-pounder had won his maiden race by 19 lengths on Jan. 11, and had come back three days later for a 12-length romp in his first Grade D start. In Florida greyhound racing, when a dog wins he is usually stepped up in class, from maiden to the D and on up the alphabet to Grade A. By the same token, three straight finishes out of the money drops a dog a class. By normal progression, Downing's next start would have been in a C race, and that is where his owner, Jim Frey of Sarasota, Fla., fully intended him to run.
Frey, 42, a former college baseball player from Waco, Texas, has been racing greyhounds full time since 1963. He knows well the penalty for moving a promising dog up too soon. "From a pure business standpoint you just don't do it," he said. "A dog can lose his confidence, especially a young dog who gets rolled or tumbled hard in the first turn, and he just won't run anymore."
March 14, 1977
But late in January, Frey got a call from Lynch, who was trying to fill out the Classic field. In 1975, for the first Classic, there had been 64 entries, half of them from foreign nations, although as it turned out, the Spanish contingent had never been any closer to Madrid than Biscayne Boulevard. Last year the stakes drew 56 entries, 18 of them foreign. For this Classic, five of the 48 dogs nominated were foreign, but only one of them made it as far as the semifinal round.
The problem is time. It takes from 90 to 120 days for a foreign dog to become acclimated to race well in the U.S. "And then, with the archaic six-month quarantine laws of England and Ireland, once a dog is here, here he has to stay," says Perrine (Gootsie) Palmer, the track's top executive and a former mayor of Miami.
At the urging of American owners, none of whom relished the idea of sharing prize money with owners of inferior foreign dogs, Hollywood last year changed the conditions for the Classic. The first year there had been a foreign and a U.S. division, with four dogs from each division making it to the final. Along the way a lot of fine American dogs were eliminated, and some not-so-fine foreign dogs made it to the final.
"Last year we decided to lump them all together and let the best make it to the final," Palmer said. "It cost us a lot of foreign entries. Now we are going to have to work some more on the conditions, maybe running separate divisions up to the semifinal rounds."
And so, looking to beef up the slender Classic field, Lynch called Frey, who hadn't seen Downing win his two Hollywood starts. "Frankly we are short on dogs," Lynch said. "The fans have really taken to Downing. Would you consider running him in the World Classic?"
Lynch was asking for help. A decent man, Frey asked, "How many races would he have to run before he gets eliminated?"
"Just three," Lynch said.
"O.K.," said Frey. "I don't think three races will bruise his ego that much."
For Frey, it was a big gamble. He already had turned down $10,000 for the dog. Still, he knew Downing wasn't lacking in aggressiveness.
"He's got to be first in whatever he does: first to eat, first to be put to bed, first one let out," Frey says. "If another dog even comes up alongside of him, he'll shove him, trying to put him down. But he's not a mean dog. He's a beautiful extrovert, just a big docile lovable puppy around the kennel. Herb Beasiey, who trains him, says he can't get rid of him. He follows Herb everywhere, even into his apartment. Herb lies down, the dog lies down right beside him."
So with some trepidation, Frey and Beasiey sent Downing to the post in the first of three elimination races. Those would be followed by three quarterfinals and three semifinals. After each round, the greyhounds would advance—or be eliminated—on a point scale.
In his first elimination Downing won by a half length. He romped in his next three races, and was being acclaimed a superdog.
"Hold on," said Beasiey, a cautious man, even though he has been married nine times. "He's a good dog but I don't know if he's a great dog. A great dog can come from behind. He can pass on either side. Downing never has had to do any of those things. He's always led from start to finish. I'm not going to get too high on him until I can see what he does when he has to come from behind. He had a great father, Big Whizzer, who had a lot of early speed but couldn't win from behind. We hope Downing didn't inherit that characteristic."
In his fifth Classic start, disaster struck. Bumped badly coming out of the box, Downing was hit hard again on the first turn. Just loping, he finished a poor sixth. "Now I guess we'll see what the dog's made of," said Frey. Beasiey nodded in agreement.
Downing ran his last quarterfinal on Feb. 19. It was like old times; his break wasn't the best, but in four strides he was going full bore and by the first turn he was in the lead. He held on to win in 30.35, just .03 of a second off the track record. Downing then breezed through the three semifinals. "The only thing that might beat that dog now is a cheetah," said Lynch, "and we aren't going to let any of those cats on the track."
"The guy I'm happy for is Tommy Lynch," said Frey. "Ever since I entered the dog he's been sweating that something might happen. He's been more worried than I've been."
No one was worried after the draw for the final post positions. Downing drew the inside box and when Arkle's Gift, an Irish import trained by Ray Randle, who was expected to give Downing his strongest challenge, drew the outside box, it was all over.
Only four months older than Downing, Arkle's Gift had been something of a sensation himself. Earlier in the season he had won the Hollywoodian stakes at the same track over the ‚Öúths-of-a-mile course. Then, dropping down to the [5/16]ths course, he had won five of his nine Classic starts.
In the final, Downing broke well on top and led Arkle's Gift by a length coming out of the first turn. Down the back-stretch Randle's dog made his challenge, and as the pair flew through the third turn, Arkle's Gift saw a hole inside and went for it. Suddenly Arkle's Gift was stumbling. Some said he had hit the rail. Others said one of his rear legs had cramped. Still others maintained he had hit a soft spot in the track. Downing didn't really care what had happened. When he crossed the finish line five lengths in front, he was already looking for Beasiey to follow around.