Caesar, The Dude

There are some greyhounds you barely notice as you go about your daily kennel chores. They’re usually the top graders. The ones who leave it all on the track, so that they don’t have a lot of pent up energy to expend driving you nuts.

Then there are some greyhounds you just can’t help but notice, because they’re just too winning with their charms and ways.  They cajole you into their web of personality, which simply draws all the attention and silliness out of you, and you’re helpless.

And then there was The Dude.

Caesar was a white greyhound with black ticking and some patches. He was an import who was owned by a priest in Ireland. He was a compact 69 pounder, who was muscular and powerful looking, and whose main attribute was his ability to leave the traps quickly, run the turns aggressively, separate himself from the pack on the backstretch, and then hang on for dear life during the last 75 yards. Whenever Caesar didn’t get the jump on his rivals, he usually began looking for a taxicab or a rickshaw. Caesar, once he realized that he had not seized the opportunity immediately, preferred to save his ample energies for other things.

Even though there were probably 45 other dogs in the kennel at any given time, Caesar liked to pretend that he was the only one. This entailed roaring like Godzilla to be let out first…to be let in first…to be fed first…

to be benched first…

to be loaded into the truck first…

to be taken out of the truck first…

to be petted and fussed over first…

and whenever the whim possessed him, to have his presence recognized and applauded by all and sundry, wherever he was, whatever he was doing.

Caesar was an uber-character. He was literally bursting at the seams with what the French call “joie de vivre”. Caesar always looked like he was grinning, always with that mischievous twinkle in his eye. You expected him to wink at you at any moment, no matter what nonsense he was up to.

He was irrepressible and irresistible. Nothing could get him down. His spirit was both ebullient and transcendental. Even when he had to have both his wrists fired, he was ready to go back to training the next day—or thought he was. Everything was a party to Caesar.

Bringing him to the racetrack was something else again. Not that he cared much about racing. He was good at it, and a solid top grader. But racing to Caesar was just an interlude in a much more vast sea of opportunity to make a spectacle of himself, and to ingratiate himself with anyone and everyone he encountered along the way—and, of course, to test the limits of my patience.

Though Caesar never engaged in fighting with others, he was an expert at bluffing them. On the way to weigh in, invariably he would encounter at least one other strange dog for whom he would put on a display of aggressiveness that was worthy of a Grizzly Bear-in-rut. He liked to get his hair up, kick dirt and growl, while maintaining a safe distance from whichever dog he was trying to impress with his studliness. Once that was done, the real fun would begin.

Everyone at the track and from the kennels knew Caesar by reputation, sight and name. His call name was “Dude”, and once we would finish with the obligatory tangling up of all his mates by his abominable behavior on the lead, and had made the necessary ablutions before beginning the walk to weigh in, invariably someone would spot him coming up, and call out “Dude!!”.

At that point it would be mandatory to just remove the lead from Caesar’s collar, because he was simply unable to contain himself, and one could certainly not contain him. He would otherwise make an utter nuisance of himself trying to run over to whoever it was that had called him. And so that was the way Caesar went to weigh in. I’d lead the others, and Caesar would go to weigh in on his own– stopping whenever he felt like it, to pass the time of day with his many friends. Eventually he’d catch up to us, or we’d catch up to him, and get past the scales.

On the night of the Wonderland Derby one year, Caesar was also on the card. We had qualified one of Jack Kahn’s females for the final (who had no chance of winning the race unless all the others went on strike at the box). I walked her up to weigh in by herself, while leaving Caesar and the rest of our charges in the truck. Of course, realizing that he was not to be the center of attention at the moment, Caesar began to howl as if someone had jammed the tip of his tail into an electric pencil sharpener. The truck box was actually quivering from his discontentment. He was beside himself.

That being done, I returned to the same cacophony of hurt feelings, and got Caesar and the others leashed up to go through the process. He was entirely disgruntled at the disregard for him that I had shown, and made himself unusually difficult to control as I attempted to leash up the others.

As we headed for the clean-out area, I spotted Delores Connick, the wife of the legendary trainer Clarence Connick. She was walking the great Unruly, who was the prohibitive favorite to win the Derby. Unruly was anything but—unruly, that is. He was actually a spook, who Clarence and Delores had worked very hard with to get to relax, so that he could perform up to his vast potential.

Now Caesar–he was unruly. As I sidled over to Delores to wish her luck, I guess I was paying more attention to Unruly’s deportment than to Caesar’s. So while we were chatting, Caesar managed to get his face near Fred’s ear (“Fred” was Unruly’s call name). And then Caesar gave him his best Grizzly Bear-in-rut display, complete with hair-up, savage growling, and abundant, comically exaggerated dirt kicking. Fred was a bit flummoxed to say the least, and tried to skitter away from the puffed-up and faux-agitated Caesar. Delores looked astonished, and exclaimed to me…”Dennis, is that Ceasar?!?! Get him away from us!!!”

I felt like a complete, Martian-green idiot, and apologized profusely for having allowed Caesar to disturb the great Unruly on the night of his most important race. As luck would have it, Unruly ran a clunker that night, and of course, I figured that Delores would blame me and Caesar–though she never said as much.

When I saw Clarence after the race, I owned up to and apologized for what I had allowed to transpire. He just laughed it off like the gracious gentleman he was, and told me not to give it another thought, and that Fred had lost because he was racing against seven other dogs who were all capable of winning on any given night when things went their way. I still felt like an idiot.

Possibly costing Unruly his shot at the Wonderland Derby was not the only trick in Caesar’s repertoire. One odd thing (among many others) we had noticed about Caesar was that whenever a pretty young lady would pet him and pay the proper amount of attention to him, he would become, shall we say, aroused. Now the only physical display he would make of this arousal, was the highly noticeable engorgement of a certain part of his anatomy. He was never aggressively rude or impertinent in that way. He just sort of exposed himself, and that was it.

We, of course–that is, most of the trainers who were aware of this little quirk—took great amusement in watching the leadout (any time it was an attractive young lady) pet Caesar during the post parade. And when they stopped for inspection by the Patrol Judge, and while they waited on the reviewing stand. Even some of the patrons would notice the dark pink protuberance, and like giddy little schoolboys, we’d make ourselves sick from laughing about it. Every time. It didn’t take much to amuse us, we lived in a very sheltered world.

Caesar, I’d always figured, due to his Irish upbringing, was probably rabbit crazy. He was crazy about everything else, so why not rabbits? We kept a huge, corpulent and haughty rabbit named Marvy, outside the kennel, in crate next to a trailer. I don’t know how it came to be that this gigantic rabbit wound up at the kennel, but he never did a lick of work. I wasn’t big on rabbits. Marvy had just become a pensioner, growing fat and lazy on carrots and celery, and from pure inactivity.

Caesar, eventually, had transitioned into veteran racer-hood, and he had begun to lose his edge. He was 4 years old now, so it wasn’t unexpected. I mused over how much easier (and quieter) my life would be without Caesar and his relentless antics, and at the same time, about how much I’d miss him when the day finally came to hang up his racing muzzle.

I got it in my head that I wanted him to retire after winning a race. Somehow, he had managed to work his way back up to grade A. They were carding the occasional 3/16ths race back then, so when the opportunity arose, I would enter him for that distance. It was really his only chance to win in top grade at that point. The devil in me thought that with a little luck, he’d pull it off, and I’d be rid of him–and all of his nonsense.

I, however, required some assurances. I prepared Caesar as if he were going to contest the Irish Derby. I pulled out all the stops. He was just busting to run. He went for walks on the beach, he took whirlpool treatments, he got his chiropractic adjustments, he had ultra sound sessions for his wrists. I flushed his kidneys and biled him out.

And I decided, just for good measure, to introduce him to a big, fat, lazy rabbit named Marvy–just in case he needed a reminder of what his real job was–besides making my life more complicated then it had to be.

I had a diabolical plan in mind. I brought Caesar out to the grass turnout pen to let him graze for a while. I placed the blubbery rabbit in a paper shopping bag, the kind with the built in handles. They strained at the weight. I went into the dirt pen next the grass pen, where Caesar was now watching my every move, and wondering what was in the shopping bag. I taunted him a little with the bag, letting him get a good look at it and a good sniff of it, before dumping Marvy out of it, onto the sand.

Caesar went outhouse ballistic!!

You’d have thought the grass had turned into hot coals the way he was carrying on. “Mission accomplished”, I thought to myself. I gathered Marvy up and put him back in his rabbit crate, hidden from view of the turnout pens. Caesar was still high on his toes and keen as an officer’s dress sword, when I returned to let him back into the kennel.

A few nights later, Caesar would be performing in what I hoped would be his swan song. He didn’t owe anyone a dime, and if ever there was a dog who was born to be a pet, it was Caesar–the Dude.

So on the night in question, we went through the usual Dude goes to weigh-in folderol, Caesar, resplendent in the usual attention- getting, and the soul of affability, as always. I thought about how he had grown to be something larger than life, both as a public character, and as a pain in my neck. But you couldn’t help but love him, and his relentless love of life. He had lived every minute to its fullest.

I made sure I was at the rail when they brought them out for the post parade. And I had the infamous shopping bag tucked beneath my jacket. When they stopped before the patrol judge, I called out “Dude!”

Caesar glanced my way, and saw the shopping bag I was now holding out for his perusal. He lunged toward me, only to be brought up short by the leadout, who had no idea what was going on. I stayed where I was, and wiggled the bag so that he could see it while the Judge inspected his blanket and muzzle. Then I walked off, dumped the bag in the trash, and waited for the race to begin.

Caesar hit the lid like his hair was on fire. He still had the lead as they turned for home, and at 330 yards, no one was going to catch him. It was truly a bittersweet moment.

Caesar would retire after winning a Grade A race. I would no longer have to cater to his every whim just to keep peace and quiet in the kennel. It was like the last day of school all over again. Sweet freedom! I also realized that like those aimless, sultry summers, life could become somewhat dull and boring. Especially without Caesar and his endless antics, his unquenchable thirst for life.

Somebody knew somebody whose little girl wanted a pet rabbit. We sent Marvy packing with a bemused little tyke, who probably only weighed a few pounds more than he did. One of the assistant trainers at the kennel in Lincoln, RI, had called dibs on Caesar. He wanted a pet with some personality. Oh brother, did we have the dog for him.

On the day Caesar left, it was none other than Hall of Fame trainer Don Cuddy who volunteered to drive him down to his new owner in Lincoln. He and his wife Marie, who was Caesar’s greatest proponent and who was unfailingly amused by his shenanigans, hopped into the truck, and Caesar somehow, true to form, had cajoled his way into the back seat.

It was ironic that in a business where people are quite used to the coming and going of dogs they have grown attached to, and who are regarded as being entirely without sentiment, there must have been 12-15 people gathered round to see Caesar off, and to bid him fond farewell.

I felt guilty for feeling that a weight had just been lifted from my shoulders, in spite of my high regard for Caesar. I could see him as the truck wheeled round to the driveway, and I caught a glimpse of that mischievous twinkle in his eye for the last time. And this I will swear to until the day they lay me in my grave. As he passed my gaze for the last time, on the road to new and endless vistas he’d never even dreamed of, and as if he knew precisely what I was thinking, the Dude winked.