There are 30,000 greyhounds racing at 55 tracks in 17 states, but only eight are swift enough to qualify for the $125,000 Greyhound Race of Champions, which the sport's publicity hounds insist on calling dogdom's equivalent of the Super Bowl or the Kentucky Derby. This year's event, the ninth running, was held last Saturday night at the Multnomah Kennel Club just outside Portland, Ore., and doggone if the local canine didn't pop out of the box and upset the favorite.
Though the winner, a 35-month-old brindle male named Daring Don, was listed as representing the Interstate Kennel in Byers, Colo., he began to develop last year at Multnomah before being shipped to Colorado, where he became a hot dog, winning 11 of 17 races. The Oregon track is also the home base of Daring Don's owner-trainer, Perry Padrta, a former noseguard on the University of Wyoming football team who, in the late '60s, played with Jim Kiick, who later went on to star with the Miami Dolphins.
Going into the 670-yard race, the middle distance for greyhounds, Padrta believed the experts were foolishly ignoring Daring Don, whose only previous stake victory had been in this year's Interstate Derby in Colorado. The 3-2 favorite was Lone Lobo, the only dog in the field to win all three of his qualifying races outright for the Race of Champions. Lobo was followed closely by HB's Prince Red, whose :37.92 clocking in his final qualifier set a track record at Multnomah.
"My dog can get out of there in a damn hurry," said Padrta the day before the race. "He likes to run, but it takes him a while to figure things out. The more he runs around the racetrack, the more he figures things out—and he's had plenty of races around this track."
The crowd of 8,396 that showed up at Multnomah on a hot and humid night probably would have been larger had the Portland Trail Blazers not held some kind of dunkathon downtown on the same evening. Considering the dog show the Blazers put on against Detroit in the NBA Finals, how could the greyhounds possibly hope to compete?
As any trainer will tell you, a dog race is often decided in the first 30 feet. Greyhounds, unlike thoroughbreds, have only one style, and that's to go hell-bent after the artificial lure from the start. Oh, sure, dogs like to run on different parts of the track (inside, middle or outside), and some get faster as a race goes on, but, by and large, the dog who breaks on top has a significant advantage.
It didn't quite work that way in the Race of Champions, however. At the track announcer's call of "Heeere comes Rusty" (the name of the bone-shaped lure at Multnomah), Lone Lobo broke sluggishly from the No. 2 box and was never a factor, struggling home last. Daring Don, meanwhile, sent off the third choice at 8-1, broke second out of the No. 7 hole to HB's Prince Red, took the lead by the first turn and kept it, although he was pressed to hold off Sassy Winner by half a length. The winning time of :38.05 was deemed excellent, especially in the wilting conditions.
The superstitious Padrta, who spent the race squeezing a lucky rock he had picked up on the way to the paddock, was properly modest after Daring Don's win. "The only thing I did to get this dog ready," he said, "was to not get a haircut and to change colognes. I went from Obsession to Members Only."
"Shoot," said one of Padrta's buddies, who was standing nearby, "I knew him when he didn't even use cologne."
The sweet smell of success is getting stronger by the day in greyhound racing. At the drop of a bone, the sport's devotees will whip out figures showing that greyhound racing ranks sixth nationally in attendance among all sports—and that was before three new tracks opened this year, all in Wisconsin. It is a trend that has worried people in the thoroughbred industry for some time.
"The horse people don't like the dogs, so we'll never get into California or New York because they'll spend their last dollar to keep us out," says veteran owner and president of the American Greyhound Council, E.J. Alderson of St. Petersburg, Fla. "If you put a dog track next to a horse track, we'll beat them every time. Right now there are 17 dog tracks in Florida to four thoroughbred tracks, and we've got to help subsidize the horses to keep them going."
Alderson wasn't just woofing, either. At The Woodlands in Kansas City, Kans., the first track in the nation to run both thoroughbreds and greyhounds, many bettors have definitely gone to the dogs. The reasons? It's less expensive to attend dog races, most of the canine cards are run at night, the races are easier to see because the tracks are smaller, and there are only 10 minutes between races instead of the 25 minutes at thoroughbred racetracks. "Also, the fact that the dogs don't have jockeys appeals to many people," says Alderson. As does the fact that no medication is permitted in dog racing, leading the $2 bettor to believe that he's getting a squarer deal.
Befitting the sport's growing popularity, the 1990 edition of the Race of Champions got more national exposure than ever, which is still almost nothing. The race was televised live on cable TV's SportsChannel America, available to a potential 27 million viewers. Nine tracks also picked up the simulcast, and seven TV stations in six states signed on to show at least excerpts of the race.
The dog people are also beginning to polish their image. The practice of training young greyhounds with live rabbits has all but been abolished, and a nationwide adoption program has been established so that those greyhounds who are either too slow or too old to be useful racers can become somebody's pet. "If somebody has a fenced-in yard and looks like they're half as smart as the dog," Alderson said, "then we'll give them one."
Padrta was bitten by the dogs shortly after leaving Wyoming. His stocky, 5'11" frame is typical of a former noseguard, though he now packs several more pounds than the 165 at which he played football. The first time he went to a dog track, in Arizona, his initial impression was that "these are the perfect athletes, just the way they're built." When he decided to get into the greyhound game, he moved to Oregon and learned to train under J.M. Edwards, a cantankerous old-timer.
Of the people connected to the eight competitors in the Race of Champions, only Padrta served a triple role: owner of the kennel (Windance Greyhounds Inc.), owner of the dog, and trainer. He also owns Daring Don's sire, Me Sompin. He thought so much of Daring Don's potential that he bought him for $15,000 from the Oklahoma breeder who had bred his bitch, Cheyenne Jan, to Me Sompin in 1987. "I'd really like to find somebody to train for me," said Padrta last weekend. "I've gone through quite a few. The trouble was, I'd leave a month and come back to find a completely different program. I guess I just figured I'd do it all myself. It's like I'm a 100 percent sort of guy."
He now has the sport's top dog, at least for the moment. In greyhound racing, fame is as fleeting as the races themselves. No dog has ever been a repeat winner in the Race of Champions, which next year will be held in Jacksonville. However, even if Padrta is fortunate enough to win the race again someday, it won't be nearly as sweet as getting the first one before the home folks.
In the winner's circle, he couldn't keep his hands off his panting dog. He patted Daring Don's head, rubbed him under the neck and scratched him on the chest.
"He's going to get a porterhouse tomorrow," said a beaming Padrta, "and I might have it catered, too."