Hard Day's Night at Wonderland

It's called going to the dogs.

You get on the MBTA and jerk through Boston's murky underground and past the swamps of Revere Beach. After 35 minutes and two changes you emerge at Wonderland Park, a sprawling, brawling circus that is one of about 50 greyhound race tracks in the country.

Following the mob swarming from the train, you pass sub shops and a nightclub on your way to the grandstand. Behind you is an amusement park where thrill seekers of a tamer sort ride up and down wooden hills. You wade through a parking lot jammed with Pontiacs and Caddies. At the gate you pay your 50 cents and mumble, "Yes, I'm 21."

Once inside, you survey your 10,000 fellows: M.I.T. professors, roving-eyed men, grandmas, unworkingmen, stiletto-heeeled tootises, and ordinary crowd material. They mill around the closed-circuit TV's, the long rows of betting windows, the beer and hot dog stands. They wander back and forth eating popcorn, spilling out to the open-air section by the track, crowding against the rail at the finish wire. Some flourish fistfuls of money, looking like scarecrows stuffed with green straw.

Most are nonchalant rather than festive. A parimutuel clerk says, "Most of this crowd was here last night and will be here tomorrow. Most people make it every night. It's a regular thing." As post time approaches for the first race, lines quickly form and disperse at the betting windows. The dogs, donned in colored, numbered blankets, leave the kennels and parade past the grandstand, and around the track to the starting blocks. Meanwhile, the unctuous voice of the announcer calls "Hurry, Hurry, Hurrrry--place your bets." The odds on the big boards in the infield flash rapidly with the changing whims of the crowd. Tension mounts as the hounds poise, leap, speed. The rumbling mob roars and fragments as the end approaches. The winning number lights up on the board and the favored of fate make their way to the "Collect" windows.

If greyhound racing has much of the excitement of horse racing, it has little of its charm. Mint juleps and "My Old Kentucky Home" would jar strangely with the Late Formica decor of the Wonderland clubhouse, and the line of Thoroughbred greats stretching from Man O' War to Kelso and Buckpasser has no parallel among the almost anonymous canine racers.

Instead of the classic "They're off!" and the clanging bell quickly obliterated by the sound of pounding hooves you hear "Theeeere goes SWIFty!!" and a mechanical rabbit by that name on the end of a pole whirs in front of the hounds, who pant frantically after it. The majority of races are sprints, and even the long races are over before you have time to tear your eyes away from Swifty. Most bettors stay custered around the TV's in the grandstand and shriek and hoot for "2" or "8" or "5". Almost no-one calls the hounds by name.

But few of the regulars go to the track to watch the dogs. They go to bet. The only trouble with the betting is that there's not much to bet on. In horse racing the sharpie has lots of factors to consider--breeding, physical condition, trainer, jock, how heavily the horse has been raced, the frequency of workouts, times, the kinds of races the horse has been in, as well as his record of wins and losses. With dogs, however, the chances are little better than in a game of bingo.

Greyhounds run the same kind of race every time: they have a preference for the inside or the outside, the pack or the lead, and there's nothing a trainer can do to change his protege's outlook on life. Times, left to the mercy of Swifty's attraction in a particular race, vary widely. And the dogs work out every day, so frequent racing doesn't dull their edge.

The authorities have made a further contribution to this morass of homogeniety by establishing an arbitrary class system. As determined by their recods, the hounds are divided into classes graded from 1 up to A and pitted only against their peers. Spotting dogs who have just moved up or down on the scale is, however, one way of judging their chances. These estimates and comparisons of overall records allow handicapers to function above the humiliation level, and a "consensus" estimate is made on each of the races in the handy 35-cent program sold at the track.

Even so, one professional handicapper said a few days ago, "You know why I picked that one? Well, his name is Doctor S and my nephew is in the hospital."

Wonderland is at least aptly named. It is a haven for the eternal optimist, the guy who's been down so long it looks like up to him. A mechanic from Kentucky bets on dogs with girls' names. An old man goes through a complicated rigamarole with the serial number on a dollar bill to get his number. A haidresser's assistant visits a clairvoyant to get her bets for the week.

Others stick to "scientific" betting, putting money on the longest odds. There are enough of these number-watchers to keep the boards jumping as much as from 70 to 1 to 9 to 5 on the same dog in five minutes. An Italian longshoreman plays for big stakes: he puts S2 on the #1 dog in the first race. If he wins, he puts S2 on the #2 dog in the next race. If he wins again, he returns to the #1 dog with S2 in the third race, and so on. But any time he loses, he doubles the sum he bets in the next race, though still alternating between the #1 and #2 dogs. One night he lost every race up to the tenth. With $1,025 on the #2 dog, he almost collapsed when it steamed home first.

Caught up in their own indefatigable chase, the moneychangers in the temple seem far removed from the greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit around the far side of the track.