Monday, July 6, 2009

A Day at the Races

I’ve always wanted to get into professional sports. With limited height, speed, and talent, my dreams of entering as a participant were shot down early. With a limited bankroll and limited earning potential (the Powerball basically, and that won’t cut it either) my dreams of ownership were shot down years ago too. I’ve sized up unborn children, and they do not look promising either. That leaves two options. The first is streaking across a major league baseball field. The second is racing our dogs. Thankfully we have dachshunds and not some non-racing breed like collies or corgis. So, with that in mind, Couper/Godiva’s Mommy and I went to Wiener Mania at Phoenix Greyhound Park this weekend to check out the Dachshund races.

We decided that we were not going to enter Couper or Godiva in the races this year. Having never seen dachshund racing before, we wanted to check it out to see, (1) if we actually wanted to race them in the future, (2) which of our dogs (or both) we might enter in the future, and (3) if this was fun in the sun, or cutthroat competition. Despite the invitation to bring non-participating dachshunds, we went puppy-less so that we could spend our time scouting and not worrying who was pooping where or who was attacking whom.

As we pulled into the greyhound park (by the way, does every city have an ordinance that the greyhound park has to be in the lousy part of town?), we saw a lot of people had brought their dachshunds. Two things were readily apparent. First, these dogs looked like dachshunds, but they were very well behaved. None of the dachshunds were charging people while the sister dachshund was echo barking. This confused and amazed us. The second thing we noticed was how thin these dachshunds were. Every once in a while someone will say to us that Couper or Godiva is getting a little pudgy. We know they are a couple of pounds heavy, but we also are pretty sure they are tweeners, somewhere between a miniature and a full-sized dachshund. However, most of the dachshunds at Wiener Mania were way thinner than either Couper or Godiva. We were not sure if that was because they were trained to race, or if our dogs are just plain heavy. As we found out, these dogs were not trained to race. Couper and Godiva are now on a diet. Kindergarten (for Godiva at least) is also on the to-do list. If nothing else, Wiener Mania made us feel like the worst dachshund parents ever. And, yes, we paid money and gave up a Sunday afternoon to feel bad about ourselves.

The mania began with a dachshund parade on the track. Dachshunds and their owners essentially walked the 50 yards or so that some of them would later race on. It was the cutest thing ever. Many of the dachshunds were dressed up. Dresses, cowboy hats, football jerseys, wigs. I’m not big on dressing dogs, but in this context it was kind of cute. I could see Godiva’s Mommy’s brain spinning out of control picking out Godiva’s wardrobe for next year.

The website that we read prior to going showed 64 dachshunds racing in 8 heats. When we got there, the program showed 96 dachshunds racing in 12 heats. This was good news on two fronts. One, more dachshund racing. Two, a better chance for Couper/Godiva to get in next year. Entry is based on raising funds for the Adopt a Greyhound charity. According to the website, the top 44 fundraisers got guaranteed slots. The next 20 slots were drawn randomly. I am not sure how they got from 64 racers to 96. Maybe there was a massive tie for 44th. Maybe the entrants were so cute, they could not turn them away. Anyhow, we can only hope for 128 participants next year. Fundraising sounds difficult. We want to rely on cute.

A standard greyhound race is 550 yards which is roughly one and a quarter laps (I know this not because I know the first thing about greyhound racing, rather that they have “550 Yards” plastered on the greyhound starting gates – kind of like how things were labeled in the old Batman show – “Bat Computer”). The dachshund course was laid out on what would be the home stretch of the greyhound course. The finish line was the same, I guess so they could use the photo finish technology if needed. About 50 yards away was the starting gate. They used a smaller variation of the greyhound starting gate, with a lever to raise the gates in front for a fair start.

Each dachshund racer had two human team members with it. One person took the dachshund to the starting gate. The other person was positioned on a line drawn about 5 yards behind the finish line. The goal was for the dachshund to run from the person at the gate to the person at the finish line. Just prior to post time, the starting person held the dachshund on top of the gate to find their person at the finish line, each of whom was jumping, waving, and squeezing toys.

Now, in a previous post, I took exception to people who laugh at dachshunds. I still hold firm to those beliefs. However, these races were hilarious. Each heat was the same. Upon lifting the gate, one, at most two, dachshunds took off sprinting towards their person at the finish line. The other six or seven racers meandered out of the gate took a few steps, and then turned looking for their person behind the starting gate. Rarely did any amount of encouragement from the starting person or the finish line person help these dachshunds actually run the race. Keep in mind that the top two places advanced to the semi-finals, so in each race, there was a clear cut winner, and then a significant delay as the other seven racers were wandering around the starting line. After about ten seconds of racelessness, anarchy ruled. The start people would come out from behind the starting gate to move their racer along one way or another. Mostly they ran down the course and if they were lucky, their dachshund followed. The less lucky had to back track and either push or carry their dachshund to the finish line. Clearly our fears of this being cutthroat competition were quelled.

We took in three sets of heats (9 races in all). That, along with the two greyhound races they insisted upon having in between, took two and a half hours. That was more than enough for us to scout and get sun burnt. Total damage for the day: $6 admission, $25 dachshund souvenirs (they saw us coming), $0 gambling losses. I was thinking about wagering on the greyhounds. I figured I would try to pick the first race without actually betting. As they paraded the greyhounds out I chose what looked to be a fine athlete, #3. Strangely, on the board, he seemed to be the longshot. On the front stretch my #3 was looking OK (by the way, the greyhounds chase a mechanical rabbit instead of racing towards their owner – not nearly as fun). The first turn clearly pointed out my puppy’s weakness. He couldn’t corner. As all the other dogs hugged the inside rail, my dog meandered to the outside rail. Race over. He finished dead last. Made Santa’s Little Helper look like Secretariat. In the long run, it was good, because he taught me a valuable lesson: don’t bet money on something you think you might know about, but really don’t have the slightest clue about (though, to my credit, I did say that #4 looked feisty and he wound up winning the race). Or as they say in the mob, “never bet on anything youse don’t know the outcome of beforehand.”

So, other than I should never gamble, what else did we learn?

We should have no problem entering Couper or Godiva in the races. We can’t do any worse than most of the competitors. Well, I guess they could run backwards. Or they could attack somebody. Those might be worse. However, in one of the heats, the winner not only ran to its owner at finish line, he kept going. Not around the track, which would have been cool, but over the outside rail and into the park’s outskirts. It took all of the greyhound stewards to track him down. We certainly can’t do worse than that.

We went into this figuring that Godiva would be our racer next year. She is younger, faster, and would actually run to her mommy. Couper is fast, but would really only run if chasing a ball. We figured throwing a ball was illegal, and, not reading any ruled, we still figure it is as none of the people threw one, and most of dachshunds could have used the help. However, there are a couple of things to consider:

  • The racers have to wear a racing bib. Godiva hates wearing anything. She still is not thrilled about wearing a collar. When wearing clothes, she practically shuts down. At best she tries to chew herself out of them. We would have to get her used to this or I will have to carry her down the track.
  • The starting gate. I am 99% sure that Godiva will get freaked out by this. Basically it is a three walled room and then the front wall goes away to start the race. My guess is that most of the dachshunds that meandered around the starting gate were pissed off about the starting gate and looking for the moron who put them in there.
  • The crowd. Godiva may get freaked out by all the people. She gets freaked out and hides when people she has met come to the house. We are not sure how she will react to hundreds of people laughing. On the other hand, Couper would probably try to take them all on.
I have a theory that we could get Couper to race if we have his mommy at the starting line, and she acted like the person next to her was hurting her. He would race down to attack. Yes, it may cost a few innocent people some blood, but we might win a trophy. It all evens out in the end.

So, we have 11 months or so to train and decided which puppy to take. As you can see from the photo to the right, training is well under way. Look out next May!