On the last race Saturday night of what was billed as the last live dog races at Phoenix Greyhound Park, I plunked down $20 in hopes of ending my dog-betting life as a loser. I bet two quinelas, ten on the 5 and 8 dogs and ten on the 4 and 8 dogs, and waited patiently for the 18th and last race.
In truth, I am not much on the dogs. I prefer the ponies. I had not attended racing at PGP for many years. And, for that reason alone, I am partly to blame, I suppose, for the track putting an end to nearly 56 years of live racing. I will not take full blame. The Indian casinos around the metro area have brought modern meaning to Custer’s Last Stand for not only this track but others in the area, like horse racing’s Turf Paradise. Even if by the strangest of quirks the Park is allowed slot machines and perhaps other forms of gaming, dog racing will never be the same. Those beautiful greyhounds will become a side-show for the one-armed bandits. “Be A Part of History,” said the big marquee at the Park entrance on Washington Street. And so, wheeling into the parking lot off 38th Street, I was.
The large crowd shouldn’t have caught me by surprise as it did. I expected a little more than the usual turnout of several dozen fans. But not many more. I was not overly impressed by the 16 pages of posts under azcentral.com’s story on the end of live racing there. Many posters were glad greyhound racing was dying. They recalled the win-or-die attitudes of greyhound owners. They remembered the photos of greyhound bones scattered in the desert. They also remembered PGP’s connection to the Mafia through its parent company, Delaware North and the reporter Don Bolles’s words shortly after a car bomb inflicted fatal injuries. “They finally got me. The Mafia. Emprise,” Bolles was quoted as saying. Emprise was a Delaware North subsidiary that still exists under the name Sportservice. But that was a long time ago. Memories are short.
My first clue that this was an unusual night at the track unfolded when I followed in a Channel 15 truck at the entrance. The parking lot was crammed. Floods of people headed for the entrance. I got in line behind one of the track’s regulars, a stout, middle-aged man in shorts. He was grumbling to himself. “Biggest crowd they’ve ever had. Where were they all these years?” He said the city, which owns the property and gets 40 percent of the take, was being paid off by the Indian casinos to keep the slot machines away. I passed through the turnstile, no admission charge. The gate-keeper handed me a commemorative coin. I paid $1.50 for the racing program. I was ready for history. And a wager or two later on.
It was a starry night, temperature in the 50s, and I wandered out past the parimutuel windows on the bottom floor and stood by the track. Looking back at the facility, I marveled at its beauty, the huge expense of building it, the poor bet track officials made that their industry would thrive. I was shocked when I overheard someone say the luxurious clubhouse on the upper floor was filled, not an empty seat remaining. Didn’t sound like recent times. This was like a funeral and the family looks around and says, `Gee, I didn’t know Joe had so many friends.”
The First Race started promptly at 7: 30. For a while, I took in the scene and noted the foreign influence. The greyhound handlers, decked out in tan slacks and green shirts, were young and mostly Hispanic. An orange Japanese tractor graded the field after each race of 550 yards. I took a GPS reading and some photos near the starting chutes, and for a while that was enough.
But along about the Eighth Race, a chilling easterly breeze came in and with it apparently a case of parimutuel flu. I could wait no longer and began to bet. I soon took the escalator up to the clubhouse, found a cushiony seat in the warmth of the vast glassed-in room and awaited the final, 18th race. By that time, I was down $2, a glorious night compared to most of my other greyhound adventures.
It was 11:55 as the “rabbit” screeched around the near turn and headed down the straight away with eight greyhounds in hot pursuit, having just blasted out of the chutes for the final PGP race. I was sure the white and red 8 dog, Turbo Walter, would do very well in this middling grade BB finale. I was less sure about the other two, No. 4 Momma Cass, and No. 5, Red I War Paint. So I bet both. As I thought, Turbo Walter was very competitive and finished second. But War Paint could do no better than fourth. I didn’t bother to see how far back Momma finished. It was all over for me by 11:56.
It was after midnight, a new day, when I left the track with the rest of the losers. Not all was lost though. I did have my souvenirs of the Last Live Greyhound Race at PGP. There were the program, the commemorative coin, and of course my two losing tickets with the date, “19 Dec 09.” I had proof. I’d been a part of history. I’ll have other moments. Nothing lasts very long in the arid lands.