Born to run

A behind-the-scenes look at the lives of greyhound racers

Oban Harailt is an engine in overdrive. The greyhound's coat, orange with black tiger stripes, is smooth to the touch. His body slender, but strong.

The dog runs at the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track in Bonita Springs, and is in the highest class of racers there: Grade A.

Oban Harailt begins race day early in the morning. He gets transferred from a metal crate, where he sleeps at the track's kennel, to another set of holding crates, where he awaits his turn to run. Nearly 130 hounds start their race days this way, all waiting their turn, yelping with excitement.

After the cage-switch, kennel operators will not see their charges until race time. This prevents the dogs from being fed stimulants such as steroids or cocaine.

Every 30 minutes, a group of human handlers called Lead Outs round up eight of the dogs for a race. Each time the dogs let loose a cacophony of whimpers and yelps, trying to make the handlers understand: "It's my turn. It's my turn. Let me run."

Some dogs wait in the holding crates for three hours, their veins spiked with excitement the entire time.

Lead Outs prepare the dogs for races by dressing them in bright-colored jerseys and plastic muzzles. The dogs are weighed, and then paraded in front of grandstand audiences, which sweat under the heat of the broiling sun, and the risk of their own bets.

The audience stands, anticipating the outcome of the race. The dogs jitter as they walk with untapped speed, still yelping.

The Lead Outs load the racers into starting gates. More yelping.

Then a mechanical white clump, which they are trained to chase, comes to life, circling the track, unchased. Teasing.

Louder yelping.

Then — bam! — the gates open. Everything in motion, all the dogs zeroed in on the same target. Nerves turned to focus.

High-octane skinny legs open up, snapping the sandy lanes like tweaked rubber bands.

The grandstand turns uproarious, cackling at the dogs. "Move it!" The fans get more excited as the dogs round the final turn, popping up and down, white betting tickets bursting in the air. The dogs speed by them, uncaring, intent on catching the clump.

Without fanfare, the dogs pass the finish line.

Almost anti-climactic.

The Lead Outs meet the dogs after the race, grabbing them by their collars, handing them over to kennel caretakers. The hounds' paws have turned hot pink from pounding the track. Sand sticks to their coats. They are then rinsed off and put into cement cool-down tubs filled with water.

Eventually, as the heavy panting dissipates, the hounds are lifted into the rear of pickup-trucks and hauled back to the same kennel crates where they started the day.

* * * * * * * *

Thousands of greyhounds like Oban Harailt filter through the 46 U.S. greyhound tracks every year, in what has become a multimillion-dollar industry. There are 16 tracks in Florida alone.

Humans can have no real insight about what a dog thinks, and yet, there are many who believe they know what is in a greyhound's best interest.

Kennel caretaker Fred Schwartz washes down Whistler Zap after a recent race at the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track. Kennel caretakers such as Schwartz take the dogs out during the day for water and bathroom breaks, although the dogs do spend much of their day in kennels awaiting their next race.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Bonita Daily News

Kennel caretaker Fred Schwartz washes down Whistler Zap after a recent race at the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track. Kennel caretakers such as Schwartz take the dogs out during the day for water and bathroom breaks, although the dogs do spend much of their day in kennels awaiting their next race.

This community is vast. There are the dog breeders that mate former champions to produce winning pups. Trainers who tutor them into speed demons. Owners who buy pups from breeders. And kennel owners who lodge the dogs at the track, taking care of their food and health needs.

The roles tend to be incestuous: Breeders can be owners, or trainers, or kennel operators, and so on.

For some dogs, this closed circle of human contact during their racing years may be all they will ever have. And, inevitably, there are two ways for a greyhound to leave racing: retirement or death.

Retirement means being shopped out to an adoption agency after about three years of racing. The agency will try to find the dog a home where it can live out its nearly 14-year lifespan.

Yet, some dogs get injured so badly when they race that it would cost owners more to fix the problem —mostly major injuries to their front legs, including breaks — than it did for them to train the dog. In some cases, veterinarians have to decide that euthanasia is the best solution, especially if the condition will affect the animal's quality of life.

It happens in horse racing, too. A horse breaks down on the track, and sometimes there's no way to save it.

At every step in the process, this community of humans says it is working in the best interest of the dogs. Others disagree. Animal rights groups and adoption agencies have spoken out about what they say are abuses of these high-speed dogs, cruelties forced upon the animals being made to race.

The two sides have struck an uneasy accord. Both are shy about bad-mouthing the other in public. Instead, the sides work together to see that more dogs reach a healthy retirement, and that more can be adopted. It's a truce designed to benefit both sides, and, most importantly, the dogs.

* * * * * * * *

Oban Harailt's speed is a blessing for his owner and breeder, Wendy Hamilton, who has earned an estimated $20,000 from racing dogs this year. Dogs can race as many as three times a week, and they make money for owners by finishing in the top four, known as being in the money. Oban Harailt has been swimming in it for the past five months. The 2-year-old has won four races and landed in the money six times during that stretch.

The dog hasn't always given her reason to cheer. "When he was in training he wasn't as fast as his litter mates," Hamilton says.

Marie Massey, a caretaker for Suncoast Kennel, plays with greyhounds during a bathroom and water break. She takes care of them like babies, she says.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Bonita Daily News

Marie Massey, a caretaker for Suncoast Kennel, plays with greyhounds during a bathroom and water break. She takes care of them like babies, she says.

Oban Harailt was born at a greyhound farm in Oklahoma, where his natural swiftness was channeled and nurtured by veteran greyhound trainer Brad Dumalski.

"They run, and run, and run," Dumalski says of his four-legged students.

He owns and operates Highwind Greyhounds, a greyhound farm equipped with a full-size racetrack, fitted with starting gates and an authentic automated white clump. Owners and breeders pay Dumalski to care for their dogs for the first 15-17 months of their lives.

This is where thousands of dogs are transformed from playful pups into racing machines.

"We don't have to make them run. That's what they do," Dumalski says of his job. Instead, his challenge is to make them run the right way — the way that can lead to big money in the winner's circle. Some dogs can average as much a $2,000 a month.

The process begins at birth. A litter's mother will tend to her pups for the first three months. The litter, which can be as large as 15 pups, will spend their early days suckling and romping around in large sand-filled enclosures. This builds strength and agility, Dumalski explains, but most importantly it builds a sense of competition.

"They really train themselves," Dumalski says. The dogs will start racing each other to feed. They start thinking, "I'm better than you; I'm tougher than you," he says. "I'm going to run faster than my brother, my sister, than the other dog on the other side of the fence."

By month No. 3 their ears are tattooed, identifying their birthday and family line, so they can be tracked throughout the course of their career and retirement.

At four months Dumalski starts training the dogs to race by using a drag lure made of an empty paper sack and a rope. The lure introduces dogs to chasing an object. The lure swishes back and forth, forcing the hounds to zig and zag.

"What you want them to do is just be interested in the chase," he says. "Their natural instinct is to hunt."

For nearly 2,000 years, greyhounds have been bred to hunt. Images of the dogs have been found on ancient Egyptian tombs.

The hounds are remarkably adept at seeking out rabbits and hoofed game. The British originally used the dogs for coursing, a type of hunting that uses sight instead of scent. Hunters' fascination with watching greyhounds jet toward prey at nearly 45 miles an hour led to the modern spectator sport of dog racing.

Trainers like Dumalski channel these instincts. Eventually the paper sack will evolve into the white clump, which is made up of rags or stuffed animals or T-shirts. This is a mock-up of what the pro-league racers chase, mimicking the hunt of a white rabbit.

By nine months the dogs are physically ready. The task then is to prepare them mentally, Dumalski says. At this point they are introduced to the conditions of an actual track. They are taken from their 400-foot pens and put into metal cages that just fit their bodies, simulating living quarters at tracks. They sleep in the cages, they rest in the cages, and they eat in the cages.

When they are not in the cages they are on the track racing.

"They are athletes," Dumalski says. They will spend their days this way until they are at least 15 months old; Harailt stayed at the farm until he was 18 months.

When Harailt was deemed ready, Dumalski and owner Hamilton consulted and decided on which track to send him to. They decided on Flagler Greyhound and Poker, a parimutuel track in Miami.

The morning after his arrival, Harailt was tested by a group of track trainers. They gauged the dog's agility, speed and racing style. "He is early speed right out of the boxes," Hamilton says. "He likes to pull away in the backstretch."

Because of that, the Flagler trainers told Hamilton that Harailt might do better at a series of other tracks, including the Bonita track where he races now.

The transition from farm to track is also a transition from coddling to working — from being a dog to becoming a breadwinner.

"We put a lot of money and a lot of hope into them," Hamilton says, referring to the nearly $3,300 dollars she spends to have her dogs trained. "That's why we want them to make money on the track."

* * * * * * * *

The main floor of the grandstand is pistachio green with white stripes. A scent of hot dogs and beer wafts through the air, as a mostly elderly crowd shuffles about.

The group spends hours watching hundreds of television monitors broadcasting dog races and horse races throughout the country. One man checks off a score sheet with one hand while holding an oxygen tank with another.

The clubhouse, on the third floor, entices gamblers with poker tables, as well as a bird's eye view of the track.

Out on the track, a group of handlers knowns as Lead Outs takes the next batch of racers onto the track. Lead Outs get the greyhounds ready for their races, dressing them in colorful jerseys and muzzles.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Bonita Daily News

Out on the track, a group of handlers knowns as Lead Outs takes the next batch of racers onto the track. Lead Outs get the greyhounds ready for their races, dressing them in colorful jerseys and muzzles.

Tracks such as this one boomed in popularity in the 1980s, says Dave Kempton, the track's press relations officer. He shows off a black-and-white photo showing nearly every square foot filled with racing fans. Despite its former glory, however, dog track attendance has dwindled nationwide, he says. He notes that in the summer the entire second floor is closed because there isn't enough traffic.

"Younger people haven't accepted it, and the older people are dying off," Kempton says, explaining the decline.

No matter the size or health of the crowd, people still spend millions of dollars every year at the Bonita track. Five million was spent at the track last year, says Larry Mosher, track manager. Last week spectators bet nearly $30,400, about the weekly average during the summer, according to the track's purse distribution record.

Such betting keeps kennel owners employed.

Oban Harailt has nearly 900 competitors in Bonita, all of which are housed at the track's 12 kennels. Although the kennels are on track property, they are independently owned and operated. Like Dumalski at the farm, kennel owners are responsible for the greyhounds' welfare, including taking care of health needs, food and race preparation.

Like it was at the farm, dogs spend their days in metal crates just large enough for their lanky bodies. Many will spend as many as 20 hours a day sleeping and eating in their crates, kennel owners say.

* * * * * * * *

"You all miss me?" asks Marie Massey, a dog caretaker for Suncoast Kennel. A pungent odor looms over the backlot of the track where the kennels are located.

Massey's wearing a pair of light blue sunglasses, her platinum blond hair matted down by the afternoon heat. "Oh yes, I love you," she says, as she enters the air-conditioned kennel that houses about 60 dogs. The dogs sleep on sheets of off-white carpet in individual crates. Some soiled sheets hang on a fence outside.

"You take care of them like you take care of babies," she says as she lets all the female dogs out for a bathroom and water break. The dogs leap from their cages, running outside into a fenced-in run. A dog jumps up on Massey, knocking her glasses off.

She's not agitated by their excitement. "I never raise a hand to them," she says picking up her glasses. She explains that the dogs pay for everything in her life. "They're the ones that make the money."

When Oban Harailt is turned out, he stays close to Massey. "Hal never leaves me," she says patting the tiger-striped Oban Harailt in the bathroom pen. Due to the consistent attention Massey provides, the dogs have come to recognize her as their mother, she says.

* * * * * * * *

Many kennel owners feel they are demonized by the media and by adoption agencies who claim the treatment of the dogs is inhumane.

Bill Ross owns Wr Kennel and races his own dogs at the Bonita track. He says that many in the industry blame the media for purveying negative perceptions. "Every time a story comes out of there,' he says, "there's always something bad."

Malik rests quietly in his bed at Hollydogs Greyhound Sanctuary. Cynthia Rizzi, manager of the sanctuary, says the dog's right front knee joint is badly inflamed from cancer, which Rizzi says is common among greyhounds; the condition prevents him from enjoying too much activity.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Bonita Daily News

Malik rests quietly in his bed at Hollydogs Greyhound Sanctuary. Cynthia Rizzi, manager of the sanctuary, says the dog's right front knee joint is badly inflamed from cancer, which Rizzi says is common among greyhounds; the condition prevents him from enjoying too much activity.

He says that journalists never let the kennels tell people about how well the dogs are treated. They are all fed well, he says, they get plenty of time to exercise, and they are kept clean.

Despite kennel owners' insistence that dogs are treated humanely, conditions sometimes are scrutinized. And complaints are heard.

Last June, a fire engulfed a kennel at the Bonita track, killing 17 dogs and injuring a number of others. An investigation relieved the kennel owners from liability: It was determined that the blaze was caused by animal dander in the ventilation system, according to a report by Det. Scott C. Bialy of the State Fire Marshal's office in Fort Myers.

Such events trigger outrage from animal rights groups. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA, is an animal rights group that regularly speaks out against greyhound racing.

According to a statement on the group's Web site: "Dogs who are unlucky enough to "make the cut" are typically forced to live in crowded kennels and are sometimes kept muzzled. Many develop crate and muzzle sores and suffer from internal and external parasites. Dog tracks are not in the greyhound business; they're in the gambling business."

Kennels treat dogs well, Ross insists.

"It's like sports," he says. "They're athletes."

He admits that some kennels treat dogs poorly, but they are the minority. Many of the injuries occur in the races, not in the kennels, he says. There are state regulations that require humane treatment of the dogs; however, many in the industry say that state inspections have dwindled over the past four years.

Ross says that most of the injuries — some leg sprains, some breaks — occur on the track, independent of humans. If the dogs were abused they would not win races, he says, boasting that he runs the most successful kennel. So far this year his operation has earned about $87,000 in prize money, according to the track's official racing program.

* * * * * * * *

Eventually Oban Harailt will grow too old to compete. Or he will suffer an irreparable injury. Wendy Hamilton hopes she will be able to send him to a greyhound adoption agency in Texas when his racing days are over.

Kennels usually work with certain adoption agencies, notifying them that a dog is up for retirement. If the agency can't take the dog, the kennel tries to find a home for the dog on its own.

  • Hollydogs Greyhound Adoption, Bonita Springs, (239) 948-7387
  • Greyhound Adoption Kennel, Fort Myers, (239) 731-3187
  • Homeward Bound Greyhound, Naples, (239) 353-7335
  • Greyhound Rescue League, Fort Myers, (813) 971-4732
  • Fort Myers Greyhound Adoption Center, Fort Myers, (813) 731-3187
  • Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound, Bonita Springs, (239) 540-2254

Over the first two years of their lives, greyhounds depend on dozens of humans for all of their needs. Such dependence makes the former racers great, pre-trained pets, say local adoption workers. They characterize the breed as gentle and social.

"I think it's important that all of my dogs find homes because they make fantastic pets," she says of the 10 dogs she owns and races. "I have had retired racers in my home for many years and they were very good with my daughter and my other pets."

Cynthia Rizzi awakes to the clamor of greyhounds every day. She manages the Hollydogs Greyhound Sanctuary in Bonita, a five-acre compound dedicated to finding homes for retired greyhounds.

"I think they are happy here," Rizzi shouts over a collection of shrill barks.

The native Argentinean says she has always had a penchant for rescuing dogs. As a teenager she drove the streets of Argentina, scooping up strays in her lemon yellow Citron, she says.

Rizzi cares for a collection of 25 retired hounds, each morning sifting them into five large runs where they will spend at least 30 minutes exercising. They will spend a total of two hours in the runs throughout the day.

"It's not racing, it's the number of dogs," says Silvana Cortella, Director Hollydogs, explaining that the dogs are overbred. "We have a problem with pet overpopulation.

"When you breed a dog you are taking the chance of a puppy in a shelter that needs a home." The overpopulation of greyhounds means many will never find homes, she says.

Even with an expansive sanctuary in Bonita and another agency in Hollywood, Fla., Cortella says, many times she has to turn retired dogs away because she doesn't have room to hold them. She says she fears that too many dogs are killed after their racing careers.

She goes on to describe conditions at the track. The crate beds there, she says, are either thin carpet or shredded paper. Clumps of dog fur are routinely ripped out by the cross sections of the metal crates, as dogs, unable to stand, shift their muscular bodies.

She admits, though, that the hair will grow back after they leave the track.

Although dogs sleep in crates at her compound — Rizzi says hers are larger than the ones at the track — the overall conditions there are superior. "We don't like to put them in crates, but we have no other place," she says.

A washing and drying machine rattles on the back patio of the compound. Rizzi places freshly washed comforters, towels and blankets in the crates. Caring for these dogs is a ritual, a lifestyle, a mission, she says.

* * * * * * * *

One such mission was a dog named Mohican Alvia: a successful racer who found refuge at the compound.

The hound raced for five years. After that, she was mated with another successful greyhound to produce equally rapid pups, says Kate Lanford, the person who ended up adopting her.

A white dog with large brown spots, Mohican Alvia now spends most of her day sprawled on a couch, Lanford says. Her legs akimbo, she takes up as much room as she can. Lanford calls this "roaching."

"They do it because they've spent so much time in those cages," she says. Lanford has three adopted greyhounds.

Lanford occasionally volunteers at Hollydogs, attending community fairs and events to promote the group's adoption efforts. The number of these groups has increased nationwide, according to the U.S. Humane Society. Locally, there are at least half a dozen dedicated to greyhounds.

She admits that adoption agencies may play up the negative image racetracks have in order to increase people's interest in adoption. The more people dislike how dogs are treated when they race, more will want to rescue them, she explains. Hollydogs annually adopts out an average of 250 dogs, Silvana says.

Mohican Alvia's roaching on a couch in Lanford's living room, breathing heavy like Darth Vader. She appears to be dreaming, her eyes rapidly shifting back and forth under her closed lids. A hind leg quivers rapidly.

Perhaps there's a dreamy bunny teasing her. Perhaps she's back at the farm learning to race. Perhaps she's met a challenger like Oban Harailt, and is speeding around a track.

The racing never leaves these dogs, Lanford says. It resides in deep chasms of their beings. A dreamy whimper from the sleeping dog. Perhaps a yelp of excitement.

© 2005 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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