by Dennis McKeon
They were like wild animals. They resisted, and it seemed to me, they resented even your gentlest grasp of their collars, as you led them from the hauling rig to the turnout pens, with every fiber of their preternatural beings. Catching them to bring them inside the kennel was an exercise in tactical positioning and military-like planning.
Or maybe a bit more like playing Whack-A-Mole for a half an hour. And I was quick and agile then. You couldn’t wait them out. They had more time than you did, and seemed to know it. They had no idea where they were, or what they were supposed to do, only that they didn’t want to.
They were obliging just to the point of scrambling into their crates, simply to get away from you, and to be left alone in the “quarantine” room, which was a small kenneling room apart from the main kennel, separated from it by the kitchen area. They were not really a problem with the others, once we had decided they were healthy enough to be introduced to the rest of the colony, and after a few minor skirmishes.
All three took immediate and vehement exception to the greetings, inspections and assorted expressions of curiosity by their new kennel mates. We were lucky not to have had a donnybrook in those early days. The others learned very quickly that these three, barbed-wire, rawboned and hard-spun characters all, were not to be trifled with.
They were medium sized brindles, middleweights. One of them, Fleet Champ, had a black mask that made him appear the villain. He was the most definitive with his kennel mates, brokering no nonsense whatever. He didn’t need to be kept apart from them, as he was not an aggressor. He was a finisher. The other two, Wallace and Center were less so, but were also equal opportunity counter-punchers.
Our impression of them as spooks of the first water was not quite the case, as it turned out. They were just wild ones. Apparently they’d been raised on the prairies, somewhere in Texas, on an endless spread, and had pretty much been given the run of the place. They seemed to have no idea what a lead or a grooming bench was. No idea why we wanted them to lead on one or stand on the other, and even less of an idea of what we were doing here, where they had even less of an idea what they were doing. It was all so utterly, perfectly circular.
So it was a bit of a project to slowly cajole and coax them into habituating to the kennel routine, something else they seemed to have had not even a premonition of. But they did it, and we did it, and after a while we were all fine with it. They became quite tractable and if not “gentlemanly”, they were reasonably polite.
It was a triumph of patience and perseverance the day when Fleet Champ came up behind me, and unexpectedly began nuzzling the side of my leg to get me to recognize and pet him. That was about as emotional and solicitous as he would ever get, but to me, it was like final chapter in a romantic epic.
One thing was for sure, they could all run. Their “uncle” had won the Hollywood World Classic the previous year, so it was not exactly unexpected. They weren’t quite in that class, however. Well maybe Wallace might have been, as we shall see.
Center would break a bone his foot during a workout on the track one morning, stepping on an exposed heating coil. This inexcusable lack of attention to the racing surface, among other incidents, would add fuel to the great media war between my friend, mentor and our kennel manager, the legendary trainer Don Cuddy, and the management of Wonderland Dog Track in Revere, Massachusetts.
We were a little thin on talent in those days, so it was a godsend that Wallace, the raciest looking of the group, turned out to be a first class stayer. He was whiz on the Revere Course, slightly longer than the traditional 660 yard distance of the most popular race for stayers. At one point he reeled off, if I’m recalling correctly, six grade A wins in a row. And he won them pretty easily, too. He would become something special, in so many ways.
Don had, early on, taken to calling the three of them “likable rogues”, which is about as apt a description of them that mere words might provide. He was especially fond of Wallace, the way I was of Fleet Champ. Center would have to go to Lincoln, then a “second tier” track in Rhode Island, where rehabbing and resuming his racing career might be a bit less problematic for him. Wonderland was dauntingly competitive in those days.
Just about then, “marathon mania” had become a tidal wave of interest and engagement on the part of the wagering public of Florida. People loved seeing the greyhounds race 770 yards and further, and pari-mutuel handles reflected it. The tracks and state were rolling in money, the kennels were flush, and the public was ecstatic and wildly enthusiastic.
The management at Wonderland decided they had to “get them some of that”–whether the kennels had greyhounds who were capable of credibly running marathon distance or not. So an edict was issued that each kennel had to submit to the racing secretary, the names of two greyhounds who would then compete in planned marathon races.
Well, we didn’t have any marathon dogs at the time. The only one who might have pulled it off was Wallace, and he was pretty much carrying all of us with his brilliant performances at middle distance. No way Wallace was going to run a marathon. So while Don was spitting nails over it, I was more than happy to simply ignore the decree. I fed on stuff like that, anyway. Few things gave me more perverse satisfaction than tweaking the nose of unreasonable and undeserving authority.
Eventually, someone noticed that we had not partaken of Wonderland’s marathon largesse, and word got back to Pat Dalton, the big boss, in Ireland. I guess he told the racing secretary to add whomever he felt was suitable to the distance to the marathon active list.
One of them was Fleet Champ. Champ was a decent 685 yard (or thereabouts) performer, a middle grader, who was able, on his best effort, to win grade B at that distance. The thing was, that Champ liked contact more than actual racing. Running alongside another dog, which was his preference, Champ would try to intimidate him, and if need be, jostle him, and finally, if need be, to throw a discreetly placed shoulder into him. He enjoyed the bumps and grinds—he was, after all, a likable rogue.
I explained to the racing secretary that I was pretty sure if we asked Champ to run any further than the Revere Course, he might be inclined to interfere with another dog. I might as well have been trying to explain how to play chess to a haddock. Champ was drawn into a marathon, and we did our best to prepare him for the added distance.
So Champ went postward, calm as he could be, and wouldn’t you know it, he hit the lid and burst from the traps a step ahead of the field. He was loafing on the lead as they came past the wire the first time, in thrilling, single file, seven of them, seemingly looking for a rickshaw, and one, medium sized, black-masked, brindle, a likable rogue if ever there was one, looking for some company.
He found it on the far turn, as another dog, the betting favorite, pulled alongside him, to his outside. They eyeballed one another, and you could see that even as the favorite attempted to quicken, Champ was leaning on him, no doubt getting ready to deliver the coup-de-gras. As they swung into the stretch, Champ threw his haymaker–driving the other dog right onto the outside grass apron, and off the track entirely. The rest of the field, or most of them, passed them both, and the race was effectively ruined. The public was not pleased. Their favorite had been unceremoniously and impertinently run aground.
I, on the other hand, was tickled to death, and bursting with pride for my pal, Fleet Champ. He’d completely messed up the race, just as I had warned, and done it without turning his head (the ultimate transgression). It was an artful performance. I felt vindicated and triumphant.
I thought Don might spontaneously combust when we learned that Champ was given an interference ticket for his gallantry in safeguarding my reputation as a seer and greyhound clairvoyant.
Let’s see now. You force us to use a dog in your marathon program, a dog we tell you is going to interfere if you run him 770 yards. But you do it anyway, and the dog interferes–without, incidentally, turning his head–but we lose the services of the dog and the money he might erstwhile win, while he schools back twice. Do we have that correctly? And by the way, will he be paid a leadout fee for schooling? We didn’t ask for this, remember? You did. No, you demanded it. Thank you very much.
Rather than let them have the last word, we took Champ off and gave him a rest, until some of the marathon hoopla subsided. I’d have been damned to let them ruin a good greyhound and a solid racing career to satisfy their marathon inferiority complex to Biscayne and Flagler.
One night, Wallace was posted next to a nice female who was making a name for herself on the Revere Course, and while not quite the “queen”, was certainly a lady in waiting. I was confident that Wallace could handle her. That is, until weigh in. As luck would have it, we were right behind her in line, and Wallace was taking an unusual interest in her hindquarters. Because of this, I noticed that her lady parts were about ready to blossom. She appeared about to come into season. Sharp greyhound trainers know that when a bitch starts to produce those particular hormones, if you can get her into a race just as she is on the verge of blooming all over the place, she’ll run a blinder.
Wallace, never one to take any interest at all in other dogs, was godsmacked, lovestruck and inconsolable. He couldn’t get close enough to her nether region to suit himself, and was visibly upset when they walked her away from him after passing the scales. He looked for her as we entered the holdout kennels, and had the most helpless, longing expression in his eyes as I lifted him into his crate, and wished him good luck.
His new found lady love was in box one, and Wallace was in box two, so all during the post parade, Wallace took the opportunity he had been granted by the Racing Gods to become further acquainted with her ladyship’s now ample lady parts. When the box opened, she jumped first, and Wallace fell into line on the rail right behind her. Around they went, running the rabbit away from the others. As they galloped through the far turn, Wallace was still following her, at what for him was a canter. He never made a move off the rail to pass, even as they came into the homestretch. He was officially addicted to love, never to be the same again.
After that race, Wallace went from being a potential superstar to being a slightly better than ordinary grade A stayer. His focus now had nothing to do with racing, and everything to do with breeding.
One night, not long after, a greyhound owner who was thrilled about the dogs and the whole culture of racing, and who loved to be around the trainer’s area, asked me if he could cool-out one of my dogs. He liked to do this, and I liked him a lot. Everyone did. And he had a good vibe that dogs picked up on. I said “sure, you can get Wallace after this race coming up…he’s number 4.”
He was real happy about that, as Wallace still had the aura of unlimited potential to those who weren’t aware of his new, true, darker desires.
I don’t have any recollection of the race, other than the part where the guy went out onto the track to get Wallace. Wallace, knave that he had become, was inspecting the derriere of some poor female who had scuttled away from him, going from where the lure tucked in at the point of the turn, to the end of the homestretch, before the leadouts could get hold of them. As my friend began to walk Wallace off the track, Wallace could no longer contain himself. He attached himself to the poor fellow’s leg, and began doing his funkay thang–right in full view of about 5,000 spectators.
My friend froze, and had a pleading, indecisive look on his face, as Wallace continued his humpty-dumpty act. The assemblage of trainers, leadouts and pee-catchers, as well as the entire audience, erupted in laughter and then applause, as if they were at a Burlesque show in the Catskills. Wallace was relentless, and required significant extrication. It was quite an unforgettable performance, certainly more than any race he had run since becoming the greyhound version of Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights.
As Wallace’s long and productive career wound down, plans were made to stand him at stud. He was to go to Kansas, if I recall correctly, and stand with a “studmaster”. Don was not happy about sending Wallace away. We all loved him, and felt we owed him, in particular, a great debt for having kept us afloat when times were especially tough. Don would have pensioned him there with us forever, if he’d been able to, if he had owned him.
One day that studmaster called to make arrangements for flying him out there, and I could overhear Don’s part of the conversation:
“You don’t say? …
His sire was an iffy breeder???…
Well don’t you worry about Wallace….
No, no, no…not at all….
You just tie the bitch to a post, and whether or not she’s in season, he’ll breed her.”