Release the Hounds
Picture the hallowed sport of kings, with all its attendant aesthetic charms; a slowly unwinding day at a rural setting while beautiful, muscular horses gallop mightily across red dirt in a powerful, natural rhythm. Now picture horse racing stripped of all its prettiness and overall veneer of class and gentility, and substitute, instead of the noble steed, a whip-thin household pet. This is dog racing.
It is fast, cheap, and liable to get under your skin. It can make you feel like you just woke up in your Saturday-night clothes after sleeping in your car. Welcome to the sport of plebes.
There is a greyhound track in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that sits in the midst of a tangle of brackish waterways, high-voltage lines, railroad trestles, and bombed-out industrial buildings. Named the Shoreline Star, it seems to stand in defiance of the decay all around it.
The track will be host, come Labor Day, to the Mohegan Sun Hot Summer Sprint, the biggest event of the season. The race, like most here, is 5/16 of a mile, and sports a whopping purse of $25,000. Anything over 10 grand is considered a big payday, so this event is sure to attract some of the better dogs from outside of Connecticut.
Shoreline runs a card of 13 races every night, kicking off at 7:30. And as race time nears, and your attention turns to the track, you may catch sight of an odd mechanical device that wheels around the inside rail. Attached to this little electronic car is a four-foot pole with a large, furry replica of a dog bone, known as the lure. Dog tracks always name the lure, and here it is called "Barney."
Over the p.a., the announcer tries to build tension as the bone whizzes around the rail by calling out "Heeeeeere's . . . Barney!" The lure must be timed to pass the starting area just as the dogs are released, so that it stays a good 10 feet ahead of them throughout the race.
Along the front straightaway is an outdoor viewing area that, unlike the horse track, allows you to descend so that you are eye-level with the hounds. A pack of eight sleek dogs roaring by you at upwards of 50 mph can be a righteously impressive sight.
Inside, you find the grandstand proper, which is overrun with 65-year-old men in porkpie hats and boldly colored windbreakers that are a size too small. They are thoroughly charming. You often see them in pairs, slowly considering all the data with each other in a way that only old men do. One such gent leaned over toward me, mid race, took a long pause, then finally said, "If my dogs close like they should, I may not come in here anymore."
With the second race under way, a man named Bob Beslove is filling my ear with battle stories about his struggle with animal-rights activists over the last two years. Beslove is the director of marketing at the Shoreline Star, and has a background in jai alai.
"You know, we've been burned so often. People come here, asking to see the dogs, pretending to be writers. Then they go and figure out ways to sneak in. Fucking activists! Then they tell lies. Lies, lies, lies!"
Throughout the day, I am besieged by defensive, unsolicited comments from many of the people who are involved in the sport. I am shown the shed-like structure where the dogs are housed, with its large windows, so that people can see what's going on inside. This is a direct result of a legacy of abuse in the industry that won't go away. General manager Steve Alford shrugs, and says he has learned to deal with it.
"Whenever they show that 20-year-old National Geographic, they throw all these 20-year-old statistics back in our face," Alford says of an episode of Explorer that actually aired in 1993. Entitled Greyhounds: Running for Their Lives, the segment galvanized many activists against dog racing. "No one wants to hear that we treat our dogs with the greatest care. I have a working relationship with a very tough lady who organizes the protests here. We live on the same street."
Out on the track is a group of young kids called the lead-outs. They walk the dogs from their shed to the starting box, and display a tender fealty to the canines in their care. They parade the dogs, pre-race, along the front stretch so that bettors can pretend to spot a trait that will gain them the winning edge. One man was wagering against all dogs who had their tails dropped between their legs.
The grandstand at Bridgeport is also a sanctuary for profligate smokers, and may be one of the few places, outside of trendy clubs, where cigar smoking is going on with such abandon. Conspicuous and unashamed, the cigar men gaze at the action while they roll their Don Diegos lovingly between their stubby fingers.
Greyhound racing is the country's sixth-largest spectator sport, and the crowd out here is surprisingly large over 1000 packed into a venue with a seating capacity of 740 and an overall capacity of 2200. They pile into line at the betting windows for the eighth race, which is the feature. The frenetic wagering takes some getting used to, if you're accustomed to the rather slow pace of the horse track. Here, the races go off every 12 minutes, so it often seems like there's barely enough time to go outside, check out the pups, see who you like, waffle for a few minutes, then dash back inside to place your bet.
And due to the dearth of information on most of the dogs, coupled with the sheer quantity of competitors every night, there is a lot of aimless wandering up and down the concourse, with people trading rumors about this dog or that few of whom have likely seen any of these animals actually run.
In all, it's a refreshing contrast to the sphincter-clenched manner in which some bettors go about handicapping a horse race. People here seem to have little illusion that their bets are anything but a stab in the dark.
Curtis Hughes races 15 to 20 dogs a night. He's the trainer who's been racing dogs at Bridgeport since the Shoreline Star opened in 1995. He's a scraggly dude with a Detroit Red Wings jersey, and in the course of the hour or so that we talk he pounds beers with tremendous gusto.
"Couple years ago, they said this place was gonna pay big. And I came here from Florida. Then it died. There was no money here. None whatsoever."
Hughes waves his hand across the room. "Every kennel brought their best dogs up here, and then the bottom fell out. We were running for nothing. Then they filed for bankruptcy, and the track shut down. Things have been okay since they reopened in '98."
Hughes is looking at the tote board for the 11th race. He has two dogs running, one of which he likes to win. He even tells me to bet on it a sure thing.
"My dog should piss on this field. They don't even belong on the track with her." Sure enough, No. 8, Reward Serena, opens up a sizable lead, and coasts to victory.
"She always holds the first turn. Most races are won and lost on the first turn. In horse racing, there's the jockey controlling the tempo. Here, they just run. It's out of your hands." He sips his beer, then turns and says, "You know, you don't have the best dogs here. So, not everybody's trying to make a left-hand turn." He's referring to the counterclockwise direction of the race.
"Some of 'em are pretty cheap . . . the lower grades. You got some cheap dogs that don't even know how to go that way. They've been taught it. But they get crowded . . . they bail out. No one knows what's going on in that little brain there."
Hughes says that all the dogs know who the top dog is, and all others, lieutenants, sergeants at arms, fall in behind. They all respect the order of the dog pack. It's the nature of canines to arrange themselves that way.
"That's just what they are, you know? I love that. . . . I watch the fucking history, no . . . I mean, uh, nature shows. I love that shit."
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