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Going to the Dogs

Alas, in Wonderland...

By Mary G. Gotschall

So you've been to the Aquarium and seen the ninety-gallon shark tank. You've followed the Freedom Trail to its natural conclusion and viewed the golden-grasshopper weathervane atop the Boston courthouse. You've even, in the course of your four years at Harvard, conscientiously gone to admire the glassflower exhibit at Peabody Museum.

But have you ever been to the dog races?

Now I am not, by nature, a greyhound aficionado, and had it not been for reading period I might never have ridden the blue line ten stops out to Wonderland last Friday night. The search for heady adventure had seized me. Saying "damn" to my 600-page portable Veblen, I took off for the tracks in fine, Kerouac fashion. I even managed to talk this friend of mine into coming, a guy who had an exam on Marx the next morning.

So there we were at the end of the blue line. We got off the subway and before us sprawled an acre of parking lot in the middle of which rose a vast stadium. Entering Wonderland evokes vague sensations of a military concentration camp. The building is surrounded by barbed wire, and the sound of dogs barking makes quite a din. The only things lacking are searchlights and watchtowers.

We pawed our way through a crowd of 2000 somewhat originally dressed people. One couple wore matching sunglasses--indoors, and at night. An old man, obviously a seasoned fan, winked knowingly from underneath his 1932 straw fedora. Little kids ran about screaming and sticking cotton candy in each others' hair.

Standard dress at the track is informal. Teenagers wear blue jeans, and the more sophisticated trainers and owners promenade in mod John Travolta suits, with the collar unbuttoned enough to show off their medallions and a swarthy shock of manly hair.

I talked to one such owner, named Rocco Solimeno. At 53 years of age, he has spent 20 years in the dog-racing business; before that, he owned a nightclub just opposite the race tracks.

"I'm kinda low on dogs just now," Rocco said. "I only have 40 in my kennels, but I've had as many as 300." He said "liquidation" had forced him to reduce his number, refusing to elaborate. He spends most of his evenings at the track, and though he used to bet, does not anymore because he "lost too many bucks."

When asked how much he earns as a dog-owner, Rocco only smiles. "You should better ask me how much I lose a year, and that's about $25,000.' He added that his was one of the smaller, local kennels.

Greyhounds begin training for the races at the age of ten months. Though prohibited in some states, live jack rabbits are used as "bait" during training sessions. The dogs chase the rabbit by instinct, says trainer Bill Scott, who works for Solimeno. Thus, the trainer's role is reduced to one of care and conditioning of the animals, who are fed a strict diet of horsemeat, beef, meal and vitamins.

"We throw the dogs a meatball before each race," said Scott, adding that they receive no reward after the race. So much for Pavlov.

Each dog weighs between 75 and 85 pounds. To the uninitiated, they seem scrawny, but they're supposed to be that way. Massachusetts State Racing laws are so strict that if a dog misses his official weight by more than 1 1/4 pounds, he is not allowed to race. Rules like that, says Scott, prohibit overfeeding.

Dogs of both sexes run, with eight to a race. Scanning the program, you see names like Tabriz Royal, Indulge, Positive Stan, Atomic Tommy and Groucho Marx. According to their records, the dogs are rated on an A through D scale system.

Before each race (there are 12 each evening), attendants parade the dogs in front of the crowds. For those inside the stadium, color televisions flash the entire race as well as video replays of key moments. Sitting in Wonderland's Clubhouse restaurant, you can view the whole proceeding in the comfort of the second-floor, air-conditioned dining room. At the entrance to the restaurant sits a big, china greyhound surrounded by horns of plenty.

We three ambled down to the asphalt grandstand, which costs 75 cents for admission (it's $1.50 to get in upstairs). A race was about to start, and the crowds were craning their necks toward the starting boxes. The greyhounds run after a mechanical rabbit, which hangs out over the track. Its speed is carefully monitored by an employee in the rabbit control box. The rabbit is not scented; its speed and sound attract the dogs to him. From time to time, says Scott, the greyhounds catch the rabbit; they must be sorely disappointed to sink their teeth into a mass of plush and polyethylene.

"The greyhounds are now leaving the starting gate..." bellowed the announcer. The shuffling of programs ceased. A woman next to me brandished her binoculars.

They were off!

"Get out there, one. You lazy thing!"

"Move it, girl. Get it out front."

"C'mon you douche!!"

Atomic Tommy wiped out going around the bend; he took the curve too fast. A little fawn-colored dog named Refuge nosed into the lead and clinched it.

I asked the older couple next to me how they decided which dogs to bet on.

"Oh, if the dog's name is Stanley, or if he reminds me of somebody I know," the man said good-naturedly. "I'm not a professional by any mean. It's all luck."

He and his wife added that they had won and lost $50 that very evening. "We'll probably go through ten dollars before the night is through here, but that's still cheaper than going to a restaurant. Better for the waist, too," his wife chimed in.

Wonderland has the distinction of being one of the oldest dog-tracks in the country. Formerly an amusement park at the turn of the century, the site was converted into a greyhound track in 1935, following the passage of laws allowing pari-mutuel betting on horses and dogs. In 43 years, Wonderland, one of Massachusetts' three dog tracks, has grown into a $60 million-a-year enterprise; the state skims off 9 1/2 per cent of this sum. Depending on his quality, each dog may be worth from $10,000 to $250,000.

Dog racing is quite popular in Ireland, as well as the U.S., and it's common to see the word "Imp." (import) in the program next to a dog's name, indicating that he hails from the Emerald Isle. Donald P. (for Patrick, of course) Cuddy, a Dubliner, has been in this country since 1969 racing his dogs. Sitting next to the track in his tweed jacket, drinking a cup of hot chocolate, Cuddy speaks in a gentle brogue about his 44 years in the dog business.

"Since I fell out of the cradle I've been racin' dogs, ya see. It's an inherited vice. One of my dogs, Downing, who's injured and not here tonight, is one of the best in the world--worth a quarter of a million dollars," he said.

Cuddy said traditionally in Ireland, each farmer has a brood matron from which he breeds a litter. This contrasts with the huge greyhound breeding farms in Texas and Florida. "In Ireland, things are not so institutionalized as here. In my opinion, though, multi-million dollar plants do not necessarily make racing better," Cuddy said,

For Cuddy, "coursing" (dog racing) and wagering on greyhounds have been a genteel tradition he has followed since age ten, when he bet a nickel on dogs with his schoolmates. Bookmaking is legal in Ireland, and gambling has fewer of the immoral overtones that it does in this country. When asked if he thought corruption existed in American dog racing, Cuddy replied, "There are crooked people in every profession. It's wrong to categorize dog racing as being any more dishonest than another. People who say that are full of codswallop."

Does he have any regrets, anything he might have done differently after 44 years in the business?

Cuddy scratched his chin. "Well, ya know, I've always kinda regretted not doin' the veterinary."

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