After the dogs are placed in the starting boxes there is a long pause for dramatic effect, and the presiding judge says quietly, “O.K., run ’em, John.” Brahma pushes the streetcar lever across 15 copper segments of the rheostat as far to the right as it will go. The rabbit flashes into motion beyond the first turn. At full power the rabbit whips around the second turn and into the backstretch, its high clearance off the racing surface suggesting a bird rather than a mammal. Before coming to the final turn Braham cuts off the power entirely and the rabbit slows down as it coasts past the starting boxes at the head of the stretch.
The doors open, the dogs dash onto the track and Braham ups the power to about half speed to keep the rabbit 40 feet in front of the racers. If the lure is too far ahead, the dogs lose sight of the rabbit and get confused.
Brahma works the control constantly during the race, moving the lever back and forth to keep the rabbit just in front of the leading dogs. In the backstretch he puts the power on and the rabbit takes a long lead. Coming into the stretch he cuts the power down and the dogs almost catch the rabbit. As the lure moves past the grandstand he keeps it only 20 feet in front of the leaders. It is an art, a rare and specialized one–Braham once had three consecutive dead heats.
Braham’s work is not over when the dogs cross the finish line, since the greyhounds do not know the race is over. Stopping them was once a major problem. In England it was a practice to toss the skin of a real hare onto the track so the dogs would be distracted by it and remain in one place long enough for the handlers to round them up. In America a curtain once was drawn across the track beyond the first turn to stop the dogs. At some tracks a second curtain was drawn behind them. Now, after passing finish the rabbit is pushed up to full speed. It rounds the first turn and folds into an escape hatch on the rail. Simultaneously, lights appear in a glassed-in box nearby. Inside two more artificial rabbits bounce up and down, backward and forward, while a whistling mechanism gives off frightened, squealing sounds. “The greyhounds put on the brakes immediately, and their attention is attracted by the lifelike rabbits in the glass box,” says The Heart of Greyhound Racing.
That is easy to believe. It is a scene Franz Kafka would have loved, one in which he would have found some remote parallel to the fate of modern man. The whole enterprise relies on dogs speeding forever after something they cannot possibly catch and which is not even what they think it is; their prey is kept just out of reach by some remote agency they cannot see and whose motives they could not imagine.
“I only work about 440 seconds a night,” said John Braham, stepping out of the control booth and mopping his brow. The operators of greyhound tracks these days are so intent on living down the scandals of the past that there is an almost alarming candor in their offices. There is a friendly insistence on displaying the innumerable safeguards they take to prevent dishonesty, protection against hazards one could not imagine except for the demonstration of how they have been overcome. The scandals have been lived down. Nine states now have legalized greyhound racing; three new tracks, two in New Hampshire and one in Mobile have opened this year; and the Greyhound Hall of Fame, presenting a more attractive side of the sport’s history than does a biography of Al Capone, was recently started in Abilene, Kans. Everywhere in the business one hears that greyhound racing now ranks seventh among spectator sports in the U.S. In Florida the pari-mutual handle and revenue at the 17 greyhound tracks are greater than those of thoroughbred and harness races and jai alai combined.
Ironically, the modern era of dog racing, with its honesty and discipline, its shiny new tracks and plastic-eyed mechanical rabbits, still retains some of the simple freshness and country flavor of the old coursing days. This is particularly the case in the afternoon races at a place like Bonita Springs, where elderly patrons doze in the sunlight, watching the herons over the trees beyond the track, and rouse themselves to walk leisurely to the windows (kept open past post time to accommodate the slowest bettor) if they see a dog they like. It can even be that way at a big track such as the one in Miami Beach, which adjoins an enormous enclave of senior citizens. There sprightly oldsters exchange racing tips with comely 60-year-old girls. It is the old days, charming and quietly exciting, and it is kept going by rabbits that are never caught and never scream in pain.