This Sunday, the day I normally write, I will be at my favorite annual “gig.” I will be DJ’ing the annual South Carolina Chapter of the Greyhound Pets of America (GPA) reunion. This will be my eighth year! So this week’s installment is hitting the press early.
Greyhounds are not new to my life; after all, I grew up in Florida where back in the day it seemed that there was a greyhound track in almost every neighborhood. They were so ubiquitous that it never even occurred to me to be curious about the sport of dog racing. My family was not into gambling so we never set foot into a dog track. But aunts and uncles that moved north after the war, loved to visit them whenever they were in town. Unfortunately for them, they always left more money at the track than they took away. There must have been a half dozen or more race tracks in town, the closest to my home was the Orange Park Kennel Club, down Roosevelt Boulevard from the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. Just past where I-295 crosses Roosevelt, the track is still there today. It is one of only 16 that remain in the state. Florida is one of only a handful of states that still have dog racing; Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Iowa, Rhode Island, Texas, and West Virginia are the others. It still is legal in some other states including South Carolina but in these states there is no longer any active racing.
One of the biggest aspects to dog racing was the practice of placing wagers on the outcome of the races. Just like horse racing, dog racing was big business in Florida. Back in the day, the church or school raffle was ever present in the lives of every student. I had to sell my share of raffle tickets. They came to me in books of 20 or 25 and usually I had to sell at least two books every year. I hated that! I detested begging all my relatives and neighbors to spend a buck on a raffle ticket almost as much as they hated being approached to buy them. But year after year it happened. One year, it suddenly occurred to several of us that we needed to find a place where folks who were willing to bet on a chance gathered. The choice was obvious; dog track parking lots.
We all mounted up on our bikes and rode down Roosevelt to the dog track. Sure enough we hit pay dirt! Twenty minutes later we had all sold out. One of our group wanted to turn in our tickets the next day, grab some more and come back the next weekend so we could win the prize for selling the most tickets. But cooler heads prevailed! None of us liked to sell raffle tickets and we knew if this got out, that every kid in school would be in that parking lot next weekend. If that happened, the owners of the dog track would pick up on what was going on and we would be banned from the lot, back on the street, haranguing our family and neighbors again. So we made a pact; we would hold on to our tickets and turn in our required two books at the deadline for selling the raffle tickets. Next year we would have a fertile “target rich” environment where we could quickly unload our quota. Life was good! That worked for the rest of our school years. At the end, we were found out by the track management, but he was not greedy and appreciated the track’s relationship with the community and allowed us to continue selling in the lot as long as we did not share the secret. Somehow, I can’t see that happening today, but those were different times.
One question used to nag at me about dog racing; “How do they get the dogs to race?” As it turns out, the dogs chase a lure, an artificial 'hare' or 'rabbit' that runs on a track until the greyhounds cross the finish line. That struck me at that tender age as being a little cruel, teasing a dog like that. In fact, I have never have been comfortable with the idea of dog racing. I felt a little guilty about our exploitation of the track’s parking lot. I knew that horses involved in horse racing were treated well during their careers and afterwards they had the pleasure of retiring to the breeding ranches. But for dogs it wasn’t the same. After their careers racing what happened to them. Racing greyhounds were bred and trained for speed and competitiveness, not for traits that made good pets. I was relieved when a close friend, who is a warden at one of the correctional institutions here, told us about a new program they were instituting to work with GPA to train greyhounds as pets and assist them in finding homes as pets. When I was first asked if I would be willing to be the DJ at their annual reunion of pets and owners, I jumped at it, even reducing my usual fee. If for nothing else, I did it to pay back those magnificent animals that made my life easier back in the day.
Left: Greyhounds playing "Will my dog eat THAT?" at last year's reunion.
What I was not prepared for was the joy in seeing these magnificent animals, once fierce competitors, now the center of loving families. They are surrounded by kids, who are not the least hesitant to come up to one of the dogs group and give it a big hug. Among all the music, hamburgers and hot dogs, and their fellow greyhounds, out there in the bright autumn sunshine under a crystal blue sky, they have finally found forever homes. After the training by inmates who know they must give up their charges to strangers, these “ex-cons” as the members of GPA lovingly call them, have finally come into their own and found the good life. Oh MY!