Here’s how you know your gambling operation is in its heyday—even dead guys want to be part of the action.
“To give you an example of how dedicated fans were in the 1980s, we had a patron at Tucson Greyhound Park who passed away and his widow asked if she could spread his ashes at the finish line of the track,” Ron Sultemeier, then general manager of the Tucson park, tells me. “It’s where he’d spent all his time, where all his buddies always were, so she said he would have liked that.”
Such was the euphoria surrounding greyhound racing in the United States near its 1994 zenith when 28.6 million people turned the stiles at fifty-eight tracks to bet $2.2 billion on stick-thin dogs chasing a stuffed bone around a 550-yard oval for approximately thirty seconds. Since then attendance has swan dived and wagers are off more than fifty percent (a 71 percent decline alone in the 1990s in Florida, center of the dog racing universe), with track closures from Iowa to Texas and Wisconsin to Connecticut providing an ugly auger of a dying sport.
It’s easy to see why the American Greyhound Track Operators Association nowadays prefers to avoid the embarrassment of calculating national attendance or handle (total track wagers). Most of the thirty-four tracks that still run live racing exude all the ambience of an intensive care unit—hulking grandstands sit empty, betting windows are dark, and dogs sometimes run around silent tracks with literally no one on the rail watching. (OTB keeps many operations afloat.) What gamblers remain bet the way the French smoke—without joy or hope. Where once echoed cries of “Get up, seven!” or “Don’t you fade on me, you piece of shit!” now is heard only the disconcerting hum of open mics over neglected P.A. systems.
Like Russia and Bear Stearns, great empires collapse all at once and with little warning. Humanitarian protests have made small inroads, but the explosion of legal gambling has been the chief force behind greyhound racing’s lagging performance. State lotteries, Internet poker and sports gambling, and Native American casinos have shifted interest away from racetracks. Once among the highest-earning tracks in the country, the massive edifice of the Multnomah Kennel Club just outside Portland, Oregon—where I paraded like a Viking warrior after my first quiniela win in the 1980s—stands like a hoary relic from an irrelevant civilization, awaiting likely takeover by a proposed casino. In historical terms, dropping a casino into the middle of your dog track is like having the Vatican set up shop in the heart of the old Roman Empire.
“Forty-five- to sixty-five-year-old is our demographic,” says Sultemeier, who now runs Delaware North Companies Gaming and Entertainment, which operates greyhound tracks in four states. “You’re finding fewer and fewer of those twenty-one- to forty-five-year-olds you would have seen ten or twenty years ago.” Big surprise that kids tend to avoid places haunted by senior citizens rolling their portable oxygen respirators up to the wagering windows, like the guy I recently hung out with at the Tucson track. Actually, this isn’t precisely true. The old wheezer remained seated while barking abusive orders at his aged Mexican wife (she of the brilliantly dyed red hair, the blanket color denoting all #1 dogs), after which she smiled, addressed him in polite Spanish, and rose between races with grand Latin dignity to place bets for him.
Upstairs, the clubhouse was an even bigger buzzkill. Rows of deserted tables lined the restaurant—What’s more awkward than a party no one shows up for?—and massive gallery windows with cracked molding and chipped paint offered epic views of a dirt infield overrun by weeds and scrub.
“Ten or fifteen years ago you not only needed a reservation to get in here, you had to wear a jacket,” says Ben, a 65-year-old holdout who’s been betting here for twenty-five years. He’s one of seven guys I count in the clubhouse built to accommodate several hundred. “Look down there,” he says, indicating the rows of empty seats along the rail outside. “You could rape someone out there and no one would know it.”
Even in the clubhouse boxes there’s always been a sort of déclassé charm to the dogs—you hear Tracy Morgan’s voice saying “dog track,” not Henry Higgins’—but for the inveterate dogger this is an ignominy beyond demeaning. I’ve torn up tickets and sworn death oaths to crooked kennels and hapless mutts at tracks from Guam to Idaho; but I never expected to roam the empty grounds of a nationally known track on a warm desert night, find a tote board with a total win pool of $118 for the feature race, and be able to count every head in attendance—twenty-eight. Sultemeier claims the GM at Arizona’s Apache Junction track—now reduced to OTB only—knows ninety percent of the regulars by name.
The last race of the night features the irresistibly named Fabulous Event who also happens to be the “Best Play Of The Day” on the tip sheet of the local handicapper supreme, a guy named “Weasel.” (I’m not a skilled enough inventor of symbolic irony to be making any of this up.) How fitting would it be for this noble beast to lift the spirits of these entire proceedings—particularly mine, given that I’m down $65—by charging to a final, emblematic victory befitting his moniker? Naturally, I bet the house; in this case, $20 to win.
Alone on the rail next to the finish line, I listen to the dogs yelp as they’re loaded into the starting box and ponder the dirt where that long-gone handicapper had his ashes scattered. Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” (big on the country charts in 1977) drifts over the loudspeakers. A rusty clank indicates the bone gathering speed on its mechanical arm in the far turn. The gate lifts and Fabulous Event breaks … dead last.
Watching this loser give up ground while the pack flashes past I’m overcome with the nauseating sensation that I’ve seen this race run one too many times. Crumpling the betting ticket in my pocket, I turn my back on the ashes, and head for the parking lot. If no one’s watching this shit anymore, I might as well join the crowd.