by Dennis McKeon
I suppose one of the reasons I loved to train greyhounds was rooted in my impatience for all other things but dogs. Most of my personal troubles always were. Why not a good thing? You see, one of the wonderful aspects of race-training, is that if you make a significant change in a dog’s routine, diet or training protocols, you don’t usually have to wait 3-6 months to find out if you did the right thing. I liked that. You usually receive a quick, definitive answer from the Fates, informing you that you are either a gormless blockhead who might be better off managing ant farms for grade-schoolers, or that you are a blossoming genius whose horizons in canine husbandry are as endless as space itself.
Lippy came to us one mist-drenched spring morning in the emerald mountains called Green. He was nothing to look at, underweight and blowing his coat. Of course, just about every greyhound who was not mine, looked underweight to me. I like them fat and sassy. So I looked Lippy over, and he was most cooperative. He seemed to have no obvious injury issues, and he walked and trotted perfectly, with no hint of imbalance or lameness. Poor guy had no idea what he was doing here in the mountains, or what he’d done wrong to be sent here. As for myself, well I had no idea why we were sent a 30-month old dog who had graded off at Hinsdale, which was pretty much last call at the time. But as I said, I was reactively impatient with everything in life but dogs. Someone must have thought something of him. I’d give him a try. I knew I needed to start stuffing Lippy with groceries, he was framed to carry about 10 more pounds than he was packing at the time. I shuddered mentally at the sight of him, but knew that whatever the case may be, he’d be a different dog with some muscle and fat added to his diet and that frame, and some attention to his grooming and fitness.
About an hour after bathing and putting him in his crate, he began to fret–that is, to whine and hyperventilate at once. So I let him out by himself, knowing that any dog stresses out after being thrust into a new situation, and knowing how tough that is for some of them. He was content to lay down in the cool of the pens, and look around at his beautiful new surroundings, as the sun struggled to burn away the misty morning. I had lots of stuff to do, and he’d be fine out there. I told him not to worry about a thing, and he’d be right as rain in a few weeks, and just to learn some patience—as much trying to remind and reassure myself.
As I got the feed ready, I heard the same fretting noises I’d heard before, only this time, coming from the turnout pen. So I went out there, and gave him a nice pet, and brought him back in, putting him up in his new crate, and promising him he was about to have the best meal of his life. As I added the steaming stew to the meat and meal, I asked him if he’d ever smelled anything this good. He didn’t answer until I’d given him his feed pan filled to the brim. I didn’t bother to weigh it, I just piled it on. He devoured it at once, and I had my answer to several questions. A dog with a good appetite for food is usually one with a good appetite for work. And he sure needed both.
So I turned everyone out post-meal—one should always turn the dogs out before and after feeding—and Lippy met his new pack mates without incident. After I had put them all back up, I groomed Lippy thoroughly, paying particular attention to stripping away what tufts of his blown coat hadn’t rinsed off with his bath water. His nails needed filing desperately, and so it was done.
After I had put him back up and while I was puttering around some with the others, he began again to fret. So I figured he needed to go out once more after such a huge meal. I left him there to attend to business while I puttered around some more, and maybe a half an hour later, the same thing. I heard the breathless, coloratura-soprano fretting from the turnout pen. So Lippy was a fretter, or as they were also called, a “weight loser”. That somewhat explained why he weighed only 59 pounds. In bygone days, dogs who lost more than 3 pounds of body weight while being held in the ginny-pit waiting to race, were designated in the racing program as “weight losers”, with the letters WL printed next to their name. This was to advise the wagering public, though common practice at the time for a trainer was to keep the dog several pounds heavier than his/her ideal weight, to compensate. Apparently, no one had done that for Lippy. Now, however, Lippy’s kennel life would be spent going in and out of the kennel as his fretting implored—all day long, each and every day. Otherwise, he’d drive us all nuts.
So the verdant and splendid mountain springtime once again revealed its multi-hued tonalism to us as the days went by, and we were surrounded and touched by its magnificence. Lippy grew strong and fit. He proved to be a demon for work, just as I had hoped. Schooling him against moderate stock, it looked as if he had no holes in his game–only the fretting. It went on all day long, and every hour or so, Lippy began to fret, either to be let out or in. And I dutifully obliged him. I wondered what sort of treatment he had received elsewhere for this most disconcerting quirk of nerves. He was a son of Lucky Bannon, who was a great sire and an American Derby winner. Lippy had some class about him–and now, filled out, all muscled and slicked up, he was a sight to behold. He was a most loving and companionable sort, a sweetheart of a greyhound, who wanted to be with you all the time. I had solved the problem of his keeping the others awake all night with his operatic fretting, by bringing him home with me, when the toys and the music had failed to calm him. He still fretted, but simply letting him out on the lead during the night for a minute or two seemed to do the trick. I was a high-energy person anyway, so I didn’t really mind the interrupted sleep. I sucked it up. And, heck, I liked Lippy.
While having lunch at a local diner, I decided that it was time to put Lippy on for official schooling, and get a sense of who he might be on the racetrack. He was a different dog now. While pondering our plan of attack, I caught a glimpse of the deaf girl who was always there, dining and speaking in sign language to a much older man, who I assumed was her father. They were regulars. She was an utterly stunning, dusky hued, twenty-something beauty, with dark brown hair and deep brown eyes that were perpetually on fire. I’d seen eyes like that in a greyhound once. It was what we call the “look of eagles”. I couldn’t help but be captivated by her. This day, she seemed more animated than usual, and as I dull-wittedly gazed upon her striking loveliness, she made some motions that indicated to me that I should stop my stupid staring, and come over to her. Ever in the mood for adventure, there I went.
The man she was with said to me, “Donna wants to know if you work with the dogs at the track?” So I told him my story, and he relayed it to Donna, who seemed thrilled by it all. He further informed me that his daughter (I was right) loved the greyhounds, and wanted to have one. So I wrote down their telephone number and said I’d be glad to help arrange an adoption for her if she was still interested when a suitable greyhound became available. I’d have been glad to run up Rattlesnake Mountain backwards, with a backpack full of lead and several New Years Eve noise-makers hanging from my belt loops for her.
Back to business, I entered Lippy for official schooling, and brought him to weigh in on his scheduled day. He weighed in at 70 pounds. The clerk of scales looked at me with a great degree of puzzlement. He then mentioned that for Lippy’s last race–some 60 plus days ago—he had weighed in at 59 pounds. Then the presiding judge came over with Lippy’s Bertillion card, and began to scrutinize what markings were noted on the definitive ID card, including the color of each of Lippy’s nails. Onto the ear tatoos, and everything matched up just fine and dandy. Except for the weight. This should not have been an issue by letter of the rules. Lippy had not raced in over 30 days, and so his weight should have been of no consequence. But it was to these guys. They smelled a rat.
I was informed that Lippy would not be allowed to school that evening, and the he must be “re-Bertillioned” before he would be allowed to do so. I had no earthly idea what difference this would make, but I held my temper, and went along with the silliness. The last thing I wanted to do was to throw a tantrum at the weigh in with Lippy on lead—he’d be fretting enough in the ginny pit, no need to have him associate weighing in with my impotent ranting and loss of composure. So we went through the process later on in the week, where a new Bertillion card was drawn up by the judge. It noted his color, markings and ear tatoos once again, just as the original had, and as if that had changed anything, the new and heavier Lippy would now be allowed to race.
I don’t recall how Lippy did the night he first schooled officially. But I do recall that he became one of the top greyhounds at the small venue, mainly used to break in puppies, called Green Mountain Park. He was a tad short, but he was a lightning bolt out of the box. He could take the turn from all but the 2 or 3 best dogs on the grounds. He was, to put it mildly, a revelation. He taught me more than I could have ever learned on my own, and something that was indelible. Because I had accepted and shown him some love, even with all his quirks and flaws, he had gifted me with his great and boundless heart. He laid it on the rail every time he ran. There was never a question that if your pup drew in with Lippy, he was in for the ride of his young life trying to catch him. Lippy never gave in, and if you beat him, you were someone to reckon with.
Lippy never stopped his fretting. He just couldn’t help being who he was. And who he was, was a grievous angel.
As the meet at Green Mountain wore on, and as the lush, heavy husk of summer became the vivid explosion of brilliant and then melancholy autumn, I began to make preparations for my next move and job. It was about this time that Lippy came off a bit lame one day after winning his 12th grade A race. No, it wasn’t the major leagues, but 12 grade A wins anywhere usually means you can run. Lippy could damn well run. But he wouldn’t be running for a while. He’d torn a slight hole right in the center of one of his clavicle muscles, a very rare injury, and it would require some care and rehab. He was done for the meet.
It dawned on me that I had no idea where Lippy would go after the track closed for the season. I couldn’t risk his winding up with anyone who couldn’t deal with his odd and disruptive behavior. I made numerous inquiries of Lippy’s listed owner as to what was to be in his future, and received no reply. I asked the track to intercede. Again, there was no reply. It seemed as if no one wanted or owned Lippy. So I decided I did.
His incessant whining was an anathema to any kennel’s tranquility. I knew that. Lippy was over the top. He wasn’t a pup with a big upside. He was a 36 month-old with an uncontrollable habit that would test the patience of Job.
So there we were, Lippy fretting away, and me in my autumnal reverie, two lost souls. Suddenly I had a vision of someone like Diana, Goddess of the Hunt. She was dressed in a long white gown tied at the waist and slung across one shoulder, with a quiver of arrows on the other, her bow and her graceful hound in hand. But I realized that it wasn’t Diana at all. The face was too beautiful, the eyes were too aflame—and I recognized those eyes—why of course!
It was Donna, the deaf girl.