Dog day at the dog track

Since my past seems far more interesting than my present (for the time being, anyway) here’s another journal entry. This time, a holiday adventure in Phoenix, Arizona, to visit an old flame.

September 7, 1992

Cathy picked me up at Sky Harbor three days ago. She had to fire another nanny. This one was even crazier than the last one. This one dyed Amy’s hair blond. [Note: Amy was Cathy’s five-year old daughter. Her father was Mexican. She had a dark complexion and jet-black hair. A beautiful child.] It turns out the nanny’s daughter died a decade ago when she was just five. She had—you guessed it—blond hair. Cathy was pretty rattled. She probably dodged a kidnapping by a few days. Amy looks bizarre.

We went to the dog races with three of Cathy’s friends; Jeff and Brian, who I think are gay, [Note: Were they ever!] and Barkley. Beforehand, Cathy told me that Barkley was [theater director] Peter Sellars’ father and I didn’t believe her, but he looks just like him so it must be true. It was 50¢ night at the track. The parking, admission, hot dogs and tacos were all 50¢. Do you know how many tacos you can slam at 50¢ a pop? Quite a few. Jeff has a deep knowledge of dog racing (due to his gambling addiction), so I followed his lead in betting. We lost every race. He ran out of money and asked me, someone he barely knows, for $2 to bet the last race. Pathetic.

Dog racing is a tragic comedy. There’s a TV monitor in the clubhouse so you can watch the dogs being loaded into the starting gate. It ain’t pretty. They’re shoved into tiny, dark boxes by Mexican kids. The handlers grab them by the collar and rear ends and throw them in. It looks like an uncooperative cannonball being coaxed into the mouth of a cannon. A metal door slams shut behind them.

I always thought the dogs chased a stuffed bunny but Jeff said the Humane Society put an end to that so now they chase a bone with white streamers. It travels on a rail that circles the track. The race starts and the dogs shoot out of the starting box like the devil’s twisting their tails. They look gaunt and emaciated, but they are fast, fast, fast. They chase after it like they’re crazed or starving. They sprint at top speed. Then the bone suddenly takes a sharp left around the first turn and that’s when all hell breaks loose.

The track is loose dirt and you’d think that’d provide enough traction, but in every race a few dogs lost their footing on that first turn. Greyhounds run about 40-45 miles per hour (I looked it up) and when they fall, it looks like a giant ball of dirt rolling at a high rate of speed with legs and a tail sticking out of it. Like a Warner Brothers cartoon. In a few spills, the dogs became projectiles and took out a few other dogs with them. It’s a canine freeway crack-up. It’s so sad and so funny. The crowd would let out a collective “ooooohhhh.” I think they liked it the same way a NASCAR crowd likes a car crash or a hockey crowd a good fistfight. The spills are so violent that you’d think the dogs would be all busted-up with broken bones and a fucked-up sense of direction but they’re troopers. They pick themselves right up and take off after that damn bone.

The race ends and the bone is suspended just above their reach. They yelp and leap wildly trying to get at it and their trainers run out onto the track and harness their dog. I watched every race from the rail because I didn’t want to miss any good crack-ups. Plus, the clubhouse was like a fucking gas chamber with all the cigar and cigarette smoke. By the end of the evening I think there was a film of smoke on my eyeballs because they were burning. What’d I expect?

I thought this was an interesting juxtaposition. The olde world streetlamp. The Empire State distorted in the background reflection.


I saw this after the fact.


I’m not sure how I feel. This place is a target, there’s no doubt about that, but I don’t like being watched.

55 thoughts on “Dog day at the dog track

  1. You are so spot-on about dog racing. Your diary re-post prompts me to come clean about my education: after earning a graduate degree I followed my bliss (horse racing) and attended the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program in Tucson. (Yes there IS such a program, akin to hotel or restaurant management school). We students would partake of Tuscon Greyhound Park (I’m familiar with the Phoenix track you describe) and study about how to manage a dog track, the kennels on the backstretch, etc. And some students did graduate and head off to manage those hell-holes called dog tracks. So I very much appreciated the walk down memory lane.

    As for the eyes in the sky, they have those at dog and horse racetracks too.

    • Tucson is beautiful. Phoenix is too damn big. Who thought of putting a city that size smack dab in the middle of nowhere with no natural resources or water?

      Do dog tracks flourish outside Arizona? That’s the only place I’ve ever seen them. I think they’re a big deal in Florida, too. That figures. Both states are peculiar in the same way. I wonder if that track in Phoenix is still open?

      My sister is a professor at a college in New Jersey with a major equestrian program. It doesn’t seem so strange to me.

      • Funny, most people I’ve run into think the other way around: Tucson resembles the moonscape while Phoenix is verdant by comparison. The Phoenix dog track (once known as Apache Greyhound Park…ring any bells?) doesn’t offer live racing anymore; it is, instead, a simulcast facility for folks blowing their kids’ inheritances betting on horse and dog racing being conducted live elsewhere. I bet — LOL — you could roll a bowling ball down Apache’s grandstand most days and not hit anyone.

        Thanks again for the walk down memory lane. Again and again.

      • We don’t live far from what was once considered a top-tear horserace track. It is dying a slow death. Jazz used to be the most popular music in America. Boxing the most popular sport. Everything runs it’s course.

  2. I would have wished that one of those greyhounds would have leapt up majestically and pulled that damn bone off that motorized track and messed the mechanization up real good for a couple hours. Rolling balls of dust and fur like a cartoon! I would not have been able to enjoy the dog races, Mark, holding my breath for that bad injury you expected, too, or worse, the Dale Earnhardt crash equivalent of ghastly NASCAR death proportions.

    I do like your photo juxtaposition. And I do think the security cameras are now the necessary evil in the city. Damn, that’s too bad.

    • I wish a dog had pulled that bone down as you describe but in slow motion.

      Here’s the thing about these journals: I always post them with the caveat that I was a much younger, more calloused man than I am today. I was unkind to some women and laughed at the dog races. I thought Nabokov’s Lolita was a comedy. Things I’d never do today. We all change. We better ourselves. Well…that’s the goal, anyway.

      I think I can learn to live with the cameras. It’s strangely comforting.

  3. That story about the nanny is creepy. Sounds like the plot of a Lifetime made-for-TV movie. As for the dog races, I think I’ll be just fine never seeing one. I’d feel too sad for them.

    • It didn’t make me sad at the time because I was a punk, a lug, an unfeeling cad. But it makes me sad now. I post these journal entries warts and all.

      Cathy was a single mom. She had it tough. So did Amy. Now THAT made me sad. Even then.

  4. Glad you mentioned Warner Brothers because I can’t think of the dog track without thinking of that Bugs Bunny cartoon.
    There was a rash of greyhounds around here for a while thanks to a borderline fanatical greyhound rescue lady. (I would like someone to do a study on whether pets generate more fanatics than other pastimes/obsessions.) Apparently they make terrible pets. Go figure.

    • Dalmatians, too. People buy them because of that damn movie and it turns out they like to chomp on children. Do your homework before you buy a dog! As for the borderline fanatical greyhound rescue lady, I think she probably has that market all sewn up to herself.

  5. Did Cathy enjoy the greyhound racing? It seems like a strange pastime for a single mother to enjoy. Maybe she just went because her friends liked it. And you were there as the chaperone, I presume. 🙂

    • She was trying to be a good host. The next night she took me to a country/western bar and we took a line dancing lesson. The dog race was better.

      I still don’t know why your comments are flagged as spam. Your as safe as the day is long. Do you have this problem at other WordPress sites?

  6. i’ve never been to a dog track, but then, i’ve also never had the inclination. your entry confirms my instincts were spot on. (see what i did there?) i wonder what happened to cathy and amy. re: the cameras, remember what happened in “enemy of the state”

    [the NSA team is watching satellite footage of a conversation between Dean and Brill on a rooftop]

    Hicks: Can you get a feature scan and pattern matching on him?

    Van: No, he’s smart, he never looks up.

    Jones: Why does he have to look up?

    Fiedler: The satellite is 155 miles above the Earth. It can only look straight down.

    Jones: That’s a bit limited, isn’t it?

    Van: [Sarcastically] Well, maybe you should design a better one.

    Jones: Maybe I will idiot.

    sometimes i think they already have… have a great weekend, sweet pea! 😉

  7. Great story Mark – brutally honest. I feel bad for the dogs – they don’t ask for that kind of treatment and will likely be destroyed when their racing time is up. I don’t know if I’d’ve been so honest. I’ve tried a couple of times and it gets dead silence or serious rejection. There are some human activities that are socially acceptable that are particuarly vile when one thinks about it. Even down to rubber neckers at bad highway accidents getting a thrill from dead bodies laying in the road. What can you say? It seems to be particularly human. I’m impressed that you told it like it was – that adds a lot to the story. Gritty and real. It is possible that the lesser ability of humans to see consequences and feel the pain of others when young, may be biological. The human brain, especially the frontal lobes which see consequences, are still growing until we are well into our thirties.

    Well written Mark – very honest and real. Thanks for the story. Your diaries are definitely honest, honest and interesting.

    • Thanks, again, for your kind words. I always publish these journals with the caveat that I was a young calloused buck back then. Having said that, it seems there’s a certain freedom to being so detached. It can lead to some pretty interesting evenings. Would I have had half of these adventures if I’d been a more thoughtful and introspective person? It’s hard to say.

    • I don’t think I could do the dog races today. I’d like to think I’m a little more evolved than that. My Bride and I are even reluctant to take the girls to Seaworld.

      Let’s face it…the cameras are a necessary evil. They’re the lesser of the two evils. I actually find them a bit comforting. How twisted is that?

  8. What a strange thing to bet on — if the dogs tumble over it must make it a bit of a lottery. I went to the greyhound racing ( as we call it over here) once and it was like stepping into another, very working class culture. We still use stuffed rabbits here but I’ve always wondered what happens to it afterwards, and how the dogs never learn that they’re not going to get their reward — maybe they do at the end somehow, I don’t know. It seems particularly cruel not to let them get the bone at the end of it.

    I don’t like security cameras either. We have several in Lancaster, and crime carries on regardless.

    • The looked like dice rolling over and over. I just read an article in the Time this morning that one of the premier horse racing tracks in New England is closing for lack of attendance. It said that at one time, the track would routinely draw crowds of 35,000 or more. It’s dead and gone and greyhound racing isn’t far behind (if it’s not already gone).

      The dogs never learn about the futility of the case because they’re DOGS and dogs aren’t that bright. Can you imagine if you tried to get a cat to chase a stuffed mouse around a track? They’d tell you to go fuck yourself. That’s why I love them so much.

  9. Oh the track, i don’t get there much any more and now it’s easy to bet from home but it lacks the beauty of the track, i used to bet the ponies all the time, thoroughbreds, took a class at the local community college taught by a guy who was a professional horse player, he pulled me aside one day and told me i had some real ability and that i could one day make my living at the game, another dream deferred for the time being as i’m sure the boyos don’t want the old man blowing the rent at the track but i miss the characters, someday i’ll tell how easy it is to fix a dog race, and i understand how people get in uproars over animal cruelty and all that shite but the flip side is these animals are bred to run, it’s what they do, but debate that is a whole shit storm… and when i worked at the Big World Bank Machine there were cameras everyfuckingwhere, the guards used to zoom in on the people from inside the building and we’d laugh or ogle or what not, i like to walk by now and give clandestine hand gestures to whoever may be watching, what can i do? i’m still 14 mentally.

    • When I was in high school we used to visit Thistledown and Northfield Park have you ever been? I had no idea what I was doing. We used to drink beer and place $2 bets. What a glorious bunch of characters we used to see there. Straight out of a Damon Runyon novel. Now, even Atlantic City is going out of business. It’s a sad passing.

  10. I haven’t been to watch greyhound racing, and don’t have any desire to do so. Ex racing greyhounds make great family pets though – over here, and I’m sure there’s the same in the states, there are charities that take on ex racing greyhounds when their racing days are over (which is pretty young) and find homes for them, which is great. My Neil’s Mum has an ex racing greyhound and she is such is so sweet and gentle, beautiful and powerful to watch when you take her for a walk and she gets running though!

    • I do remember there being rescue agencies in Phoenix.Greyhounds are supposed to make fantastic pets but they’re the strangest looking dogs you’ve ever seen. I’m glad she took me. It was interesting. But I don’t know if I’d ever go again. I’ve been to a few boxing matches and I’m done with that, too.

    • Hey…guess where I took that? Bryant Park! It dawned on me that in addition to these blatant show, there must also be hidden cameras littered all over the city. That’s okay with me.

      See you Friday. I’m working on an extended lunch period. It’s a special occasion!

  11. Who in hell dyes a kids hair? That’s bonkers that is.
    Oh a night with a dog is such good fun 😉 Ours run after fake rabbits, not bones. I once thought of buying a greyhound and running it for hard cash but then I always think “I could do that” to everything. Another interesting piece of life and great pics.

    • Do you know who dyes a 5-year olds hair? A deeply depressed woman who wanted to turn that child into her dead daughter. Sad + crazy = dangerous.

      I thought the dogs were beautiful when they ran. Graceful and sleek. Good aerodynamics. But some of them couldn’t navigate that turn and it all went wrong.

      Why you no post? You give up?

      • Look at you. Holiday in France. That’s what’s so great about living in the UK. You can hop a short flight and be in an entirely different culture than the one you just left. You can travel for days on end here in the U.S. and it’ll look no different than home.

        A drunk Brit? Don’t tell me you were a walking cliche! I’ll hop over and see. I hope you took some pics.

  12. Years and years ago when I was a snotty teenager I went with my Dad a few times to “the dogs” – a ramshackle dump near a similar grass strip “airport”. Whole thing was awful… not long afterwards there was a big betting scandal involving that place and it was all shut down – not before the bookies had welded the gates shut in some protest to stop a meeting going ahead.

    The scam was to get a dog that had run well a few times before. The handler was then paid to… err… how can I put this delicately… relieve the dog manually just before it went onto the track, being in a post coitus euphoria the dog ran rubbish so all the wise money had gone at the last moment to the 2nd favourite…

    • That is the funniest, most vile, scam I have ever heard of. People will do anything for a buck–for an advantage–and this illustrates just how far someone will go. It’s an effective method. I always need a nap after the fact.

  13. I went to Tampa’s Dog Track once, 25 years ago (closed now). With Florida’s heat and humidity it smelled real bad. So did most of the people. Now it is a poker parlor. Pretty much the same people. I liked the pictures. Did you also notice the Radiator Building in the reflextion even thought it’s 6 blocks from the Empire State Building?

    • It’s a fine line between a poker parlor and a dog track. You are correct that it would draw the same crowd. I’m taking a day trip to Atlantic City on Monday and am expecting to see the same folks down there.

      Good eye. The Radiator Building is a beauty, isn’t it? Did you know that The Woolworth Building, one of my favorite architectural marvels in the city, is about to reopen a residential apartments and condos? Can you imagine living in a beautiful work of art like that? Rich people have all the fun.

  14. I’m still thinking about the nanny and the hair dye. So odd. Those cameras hidden in plain sight remind me of how long it has been since I have been back East. I’m surprisingly homesick looking at your images.

  15. Why would the Humane Society object to a stuffed bunny?

    So, I decided to randomly wander over here, because you hadn’t posted in a while. Guess what? You HAD. And my “follow” button was mysteriously unclicked. I honestly believe there are gremlins on WordPress.

    I *think* today is the day you mentioned meeting in the city if the weather was good. Did you go in anyway?
    When do I get asked to be met for lunch????

    • The Human Society has its heart in the right place but I agree. They can be a little schizo.

      Oh, twisted, evil Follow button. Don’t torment my readers. There. That should do it.

      I met Daisyfae and her fella for lunch yesterday. Are you referring to the comments above? She’s from the mothership–Ohio–and we’ve met a few times. One of my best blog buds. We should definitely share a meal or a drink or two. Tough to put together but it can be done.

  16. Damn! I had all sorts of trouble commenting, meant to get back to it and…well, I missed.
    When I was a kid I spent a fair bit of holiday time with a cousin in a coal town.A lot of miners had greyhounds and we kids used to walk the neighbour’s dogs.Naturally, we thought we had the “inside track” as it were and we ran a neat little book.Just penny ante stuff, but it was fun.Also highly illegal as in those days betting was legal only on horse races and only through the licensed Board. It’s a nasty, cruel business these days, with dogs being badly treated, especially if they don’t make big money.
    As to the sad nanny story…your friend dodged an ugly bullet there.

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