Irene (Billy) Jenkins, 83, and her younger sister, Capitola (Cappy) Haught, 69, live in the Sonora Desert 30 miles west of Tucson. Beside their small mobile home is a cinder-block kennel that Billy built in the early 1970s. Today the kennel houses 33 greyhounds, who spend most of their time lounging in six-by eight-foot mesh boxes that are stacked in two tiers. Another trainer joins the sisters every day as they take care of the dogs—feeding, watering, muzzling each one before weighing it, cleaning up after them. Four times a day, eight or 10 at a time, the dogs are turned out in fenced yards. The sisters mix greyhound medicines and tonics as necessary, and as they work, they talk to, pet and rub the animals. The dogs reply with appropriate wiggles, yips and licks.
Late in the afternoon, six days a week, Cappy loads as many as seven of the dogs in traveling cages onto a pickup and drives to Tucson Greyhound Park. She stays there until the race card is completed, which some nights is 11 p.m. Then she trucks back home across the desert with the dogs.
After having done so for nearly 25 years, Billy no longer makes regular trips to the track. She stopped in 1988 because, as she says, "I'm getting blind as an old bat."
The sisters have a relatively small kennel, but last year their dogs made 1,198 starts and finished in the money (first, second, third or fourth place) 660 times. That's 55% in the money, with 40-45% the average among the 26 or so trainers who regularly run greyhounds at Tucson. Billy has no idea how many winners she has trained but knows she always has won enough money to cover expenses. "The doggies have taken care of themselves, taken care of me and paid for all of this," Billy says, indicating her modest desert establishment. "Not a penny has come from gambling. I haven't bet in 30 years. I've seen too many throw their money through those windows and end up without enough to take care of their dogs. Gamblers come up and they say, 'Billy, who do you like in this race?' I tell them to bet on the rabbit [which is what the lure used to be] because it always comes in first."
April 15, 1990
Dog racing in Tucson is to this sport somewhat similar to the Durham Bulls in professional baseball. Compared with the other 52 dog tracks in the U.S., "we are in the lower third," says Mike Romaine, the Tucson track general manager. This ranking is based on average attendance per card (1,000 paying customers), handle ($100,000) and prize money ($150-200 for winners of premier races). But Romaine points out that the Tucson track, established in 1944, is one of the oldest in the country, and for the past four years has been operating year-round, which many others do not.
A dog named JR's Ripper and his owner, Billy Jenkins, are, in fact, celebrities of the first order in the larger world of greyhound racing. On Nov. 22, 1985, Ripper won his 138th race, breaking the career-win record for American greyhounds, which had been set 30 years earlier by a California bitch, Indy Ann. To put the record in perspective: Since 1912, when greyhounds first raced on tracks in the U.S., only 17 dogs have won 100 or more races. (A dog called Checkers, with 108 victories, was also trained by Billy.)
"There is a fine tradition here," Romaine says of the track that has been Billy's home turf, "and we think we have an attractive small plant with a nice family atmosphere."
This is certainly an allowable claim early on a midwinter evening before the cash customers have arrived and while the handlers and their dogs are getting ready to entertain them. The sun has just set behind the Tucson Mountains. The desert air has not yet chilled, and the ground is still radiating heat. In a field behind the tote board, greyhounds are being unloaded from trucks and vans. They yap moderately, sounding somewhat like distant coyotes.
The hundred or so dogs who will run for money on the evening's card are brought into the stewards' paddock. They are weighed and examined by vets, and their identifying ear tattoos are checked. More or less on command, they pee into paper cups, and the urine is tested for drugs. Certified as fit and organically pure, they are taken from the trainers—who are not permitted to have anything more to do with the dogs until after the races—and put into kennel boxes, which are then guarded by track authorities.
On this night, in a fenced area outside the stewards' building, another 70 dogs remain with their trainers, waiting to run in one of 10 schooling heats upon which there is no pari-mutuel wagering. These are animals who have never, or not recently, raced for money. Before they can do so, they must meet qualifying times (i.e., 32 seconds for 5/16 of a mile for dogs who have raced before) and convince the three racing stewards of their suitability. This particular evening, Cappy has brought in three money dogs, who have been left in the security kennel, and one maiden schooler, a bitch with whom she must stay until the animal has run in at least four of these preliminary qualifiers.
Every five minutes or so a pack of schoolers sprints by in hot, futile pursuit of a white mechanical lure that is fashioned in the shape of a bone, an enlarged version of a commercial dog biscuit. Formerly greyhound racers chased mechanical lures that looked like rabbits, but it seems that in this sensitive age, lures of this design are regarded as a tad too suggestive. Thus the phony bone. "But most of us still think of it as a rabbit," Cappy admits.
Spokespersons for the greyhound racing authorities say that, using 1988 attendance (26.6 million annually) as an indicator, theirs is the seventh most popular sport in the country, hockey being just ahead of it, wrestling just behind. For the uninitiated, it's something of a puzzle how so many people can work up so much enthusiasm for watching and wagering on greyhounds as they run for mere seconds on a track. The races are so brief, and the dogs so small, so uniform and so tightly bunched that it is difficult to know which one is losing your money.
The lure machine, with the bone extended on a mechanical arm, moves along the perimeter of the course, trolley-fashion. After crossing the finish line the device goes into a fenced chute, where the dogs can see it but can't get at it. The dogs follow along the fence for 30 yards. Then the bone disappears into the machine and it stops moving. So, therefore, do the dogs. Track attendants leash the animals and lead them away. Most of the dogs go eagerly. Those that don't are unceremoniously dragged away by their exasperated handlers, who also sometimes call them uncomplimentary names.
As a natural consequence of being 69 and having spent much of her life outdoors in Arizona, Cappy's face is leathery in tint and texture, though in all other respects she seems ageless. She is a slight woman of very supple carriage and upright posture. While handling dogs, loading trucks, simply walking or gesturing, her movements seem remarkably easy and efficient. She does not have the aches and pains common to her age group and is, refreshingly, never hypochondriacal. More unusual, she is seldom nostalgic. She will speak—in a soft, Southwestern purr—about being widowed, her children, grandchildren, people and dogs she has known. But rarely does she make judgments, good or bad, about things that have happened to her or describe how they have left her marked and feeling. Perhaps it is just reticence, but, true or false, the impression she leaves is of a person who is peculiarly serene about the past and future.
"Watching the schooling races is about the only time I still get much interested at the track," she says. "When I get home, Billy is full of questions about how this or that dog did. I tell her I was busy and didn't see, but I don't try to watch very often. In the kennel they show some personality. But on the track they do look like little machines."
With rare exceptions, greyhounds are retired from racing before they are five years old because they have been slowed by age or injuries. They are explosive performers. Like human sprinters, they are prone to muscle pulls and tears, and to broken feet and hocks. Promising animals are kept for breeding, but most, after retiring from the track, are destroyed because kennel owners lack the time, space and inclination to keep unproductive animals. When Cappy was an independent trainer, she successfully placed as pets dogs that were unsuitable for the track. She says that greyhounds that haven't raced can make steady, educable companions (her own is currently a 3-year-old miniature female named Samantha) and seem to have a special affinity for small children. However, animals who have raced for most of their adult lives usually do not make good house dogs. "They are very hyper. They want to get at the least little thing that moves, so they have to be tied or kept between high fences." Cappy says. "If they get loose, they start running and keep on until they are lost or dead. Everything but the running has been worked out of them. In a way they are made simple."
Cappy says that racing greyhounds are almost always fed and treated decently because doing otherwise is contrary to a trainer's economic self-interest. "But when you think of it, they have very strange lives," she says. "They are put in a turnout pen three or four times a day. They go to a track once or twice a week and run for 30 or 40 seconds. Other than that they live in a box. After I had my own kennel for a while, I started wondering if the dogs were happy. Maybe that isn't the right word or even a question that can be asked about anything other than us. But I could not find an answer that satisfied me. This is one, but not the only reason, I got out of the business."
And why is she now back in it?
"I went to Tennessee in 1987 to be near my son. I thought I would try to be a retired woman. But it was plain that Billy would have to have more full-time help if she was going to keep her kennel. I know the dogs are what make her happy, keep her going. I could help, so I came back. How long I stay, that depends on Billy."
Billy Jenkins is a 4'10", stout and now bent woman. She looks her 83 years, and is well aware of and not particularly pleased by them. "Too blind to see the dogs run." she says of herself. "Getting deaf, and shy about talking to strangers. I miss what they say, and think they will think I am a fool. My wind is gone. But most days I still have my wits."
Billy grew up on cattle ranches in northern Arizona. "Our daddy. Lee Miller, raised 11 of us kids on a hand's wages. We were short on money, but we ate good and had fun. And I always had my own dog. The cowboys were the ones who started calling me Bill," she explains as she reminisces. "When people call me Irene, I have to think who they are talking about. When I was nine, I could rope a calf, brand it and cut it if it was a little boy. I was in charge of four old range cows. Every morning I'd catch them, rope them to a corral post and milk those wild girls. Then I'd ride my pony five miles to a little school."
After Billy completed eight grades at the rural school, she went by herself to live in Prescott and pursue her education. But things did not work out as intended. "This one got real sick," Billy says, nodding toward Cappy. "The polio. Her being so much younger, I had done a lot of her raising. When she took sick, she screamed rawhide and blood for me. I came home to nurse her. For two years she had trouble walking, and whatever my chores, I'd carry her around on my back. I tell people that's why I'm short—from lugging Cappy."
When Cappy recovered, Billy set off again on her own, this time to Tucson, where she put herself through beautician school by working as a waitress in a cattleman's restaurant, a job she thinks may have been as educational as high school or college. She was married for a time to Harry Jenkins, a railroad man who worked for the Southern Pacific going between Tucson and El Paso, but the marriage lasted only a few years. "He was a pretty good husband, but he was way too finicky. I have never seen such a neat man."
Another sister, Leah, married a man named Carl Boesdorfer. In the '50s, Leah and Carl established a greyhound breeding kennel in Llano, Calif., training and selling dogs throughout the country, and Billy and Cappy used to visit them from time to time. Billy had made only a few recreational trips to the Tucson dog track, but in the early '60s she got a bitch from the Boesdorfers.
Billy started working as an apprentice handler for the late William Wells, a respected man in Arizona greyhound circles. In 1963, she got her trainer's license, though not without controversy. "There never had been a woman trainer in Arizona, and the high mucketymucks on the racing board said that because there hadn't been one, there couldn't be one," she says. "Mr. Wells liked my work. He was a big stockholder in the Arizona tracks. He said he didn't care how things had been, but how they were going to be was that Irene Jenkins would get her papers or he would take out his money and do something else with it. I got the license pronto."
In 1972, Billy bought the property west of Tucson and built the kennel herself. "People said I was too little to do the heavy work. People have been telling me that all my life. I tell them spunk counts for more than size. The hardest part was setting the roof beams. A fellow at the lumberyard showed me how to rig up ropes and pulleys. I'd jump on the contraption, like pumping a swing, raise the timbers and put them in the right place."
Cappy came to Tucson in 1973 and helped Billy. Later Cappy got her own trainer's license. Except for the few months that she was in Tennessee, she has been in racing ever since.
After greyhounds commence racing, when they are about 18 months old, they are occasionally put on a sprint path—a short, narrow enclosure—and allowed to run back and forth on their own for a few minutes at a time. Other than these brief speed runs, there are no regular workouts, which raises the question of what difference a trainer makes. It is answered by Bill Drozd, who has been with the Tucson track for more than 30 years and is now its director of racing.
Like other members of the greyhound establishment—and a very image-conscious establishment it is—in public, Drozd (pronounced Drost) always speaks highly of everyone connected with the sport. He does not recall any bad trainers, though he allows that some are better than others and is of the opinion that Billy Jenkins is one of the very best: "Billy and Cappy, now that she's back, treat their dogs like they were their children or friends. They do this for one dog, something else for another dog, because they know what each one needs and likes. They are always watching them and going over them with their hands. They don't just feed and water. They give TLC. It brings out the best in their dogs. There are different systems, but all the really top trainers have a gift for doing that.
"JR's Ripper was a solid dog, but the way Billy handled him was exceptional," Drozd continues. "After Ripper started getting famous, there was pressure on Billy to run him a lot—crowds here always picked up when he was entered. People wanted him shipped out of state to run at their track, but she only raced him here at our track. She didn't go after the big-money purses. She watched him like a hawk. If there was any little thing that didn't seem right, she'd scratch him. The dog obviously had a lot of natural ability, but he set his records basically because he ran until he was 5½, started 240 times and never even had a small injury."
Billy does not own most of her dogs. Instead, she leases them from large breeders, who have broken them to the lure. She runs them when she thinks best, gives an agreed-on percentage of their winnings to the breeder, and when their racing days are over, the dogs return to their home kennels.
Billy did, however, own JR's Ripper outright. "The best money I ever spent," she chortles. "I'd got a nice little black-and-white from Joe and Ruth Staggs [kennel operators in Phoenix], but he no sooner got here than he broke a toe, which finished him for the track. John said he had another black-and-white, Ripper, who had already broken his maiden up in Portland, Oregon, and would probably suit me as a replacement if I wanted to buy." She paid $2,500 for the dog in 1982.
From the beginning, Ripper could break from a starting box faster than any dog Billy had ever seen. "They took pictures at the track, and he'd usually be two jumps ahead in 50 feet," she recalls. Initially, though, Ripper was not a strong closer and lost some races at the finish. Billy happened to run into a retired dog man from Tennessee and mentioned this problem. "He said that Back East they'd give dogs bee pollen to help their wind and stamina. I'd never heard that, but I'm a great hand for learning new things, so I got some pollen from a bee place and mixed it in Ripper's food. He started closing like a house afire. It's expensive, but now I give all the boys and girls a little pollen before they run."
After Ripper won the big 138th (by the length of his nose), he continued into the winter racing season, even though he had passed his fifth birthday and was by the standards of this sport more than the equivalent in age of a Nolan Ryan. He won five more times, and many observers believe that his mark of 143 career victories will remain unsurpassed for decades. (West Palm Beach-based He's My Man leads active racing greyhounds, with 85 victories.)
Ripper entered his final race on March 14, 1986, and lost it stumbling on the final turn. Billy recalls, "I said to myself right then on the track, That's it. No more for Ripper.' That little dog had been so good to me. I wasn't going to be mean enough to let him go out again and maybe get hurt. I brought him back once more to the track, but not to run. just so people could say their au revoirs. I think he liked the limelight and so did I a little bit." In the limelight, after a fireworks display, Billy received a large trophy and Ripper was given a real bone on a silver platter. Shirts with the dog's name and pawprint on them were sold at the park.
Billy kept Ripper in her kennel for two years after his retirement. As a celebrity, he was visited by sentimental racing fans, and he serviced some local bitches, but Billy knew she could not give the famous dog the opportunities he deserved. Ripper now stands at stud in a large breeding kennel in Oklahoma. Billy and Cappy trained nine of his offspring, and one of them, Jesse James, won nine of his first 10 races.
Billy's philosophy of greyhound management is empirical and empathetic. On the day after they run, the dogs are given a baby-oil massage because Billy says she knows how nice a good rub feels when you're a little stiff. Right before lights out in the kennel, all the boys and girls get a cookie because this is a snack Billy likes in the evening. The basic kennel chow is a mixture of lean ground beef, dried fiber meal, a mineral supplement called calf manna, and an all-purpose vitamin capsule of the brand that Billy herself now takes.
Billy thinks that it is not good for a dog to run on a full stomach and that they would be as well-off physically if they didn't eat at all on race days. But she has another theory that eating is the high point of a dog's day and that if the ones who are going to the races in the evening did not eat, while the others did. it would have a bad effect on their mental health. "They'd feel like little kids at a party who got left out when the ice cream was dished up." So in the morning the runners of the day get a kind of placebo—one egg. a large spoon of honey and a pinch of bee pollen mixed in a cup of water. This is light enough for their stomachs but heavy enough so they do not feel rejected. Billy believes that after they have had these prerace goodies a few times, the dogs understand the significance of them and begin looking forward to their trip to the track.
The morning kennel chores take about four hours. Cappy works without breaks, making no wasted motions, saying very little. Billy gives Cappy a steady stream of advice and reminders. After the feeding is done, Cappy starts getting the dogs out of their boxes and putting groups of them in the outside, fenced yards. Billy waits in the warmest turnout pen, bundled up, leaning against the fence. "I'm like an old lizard," she says, "hanging on the wall in the sun."
After their morning business, some of the dogs lie in the sun or take dust baths. Others mill around Billy. She fondles and talks to them, supervises their behavior like a teacher in a schoolyard. As they amble around, only their rear ends—bulging with muscles like the chests of bodybuilders—suggest what they do professionally.
The question that Cappy mentioned earlier is brought up to Billy. "Do you ever wonder if these dogs are happy?"
She seems genuinely surprised and says, "No, I never have thought about that."
But now she does think about it, and after a few minutes gives her answer, which at first seems to be a digression. "Some people have a strict turnout schedule. They give their dogs exactly so many minutes outside every day. I don't believe in that. I wait with the boys and girls, and they tell me what they want to do. You watch."
After about 15 minutes in the turnout yard the dogs quietly congregate at the gate and wait for Billy to open it and let them back into the kennel building. Inside they stand patiently in front of their assigned boxes until Cappy puts them away, giving a boost to those who live on the second tier.
"These are their homes," Billy says indicating the cages. "They feel good and smell good to them. I think these little boys and girls are a lot like the rest of us. We are happy when we can do things we are used to doing and have our own things around us."