Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Sometimes You Act Like A Nut. Sometimes You Don't

Regular visitors to the halls of Ironicus Maximus (Hi mom!) will recall that each Friday we feature rescued racing greyhounds looking for permanent homes due to the fact that they are no longer profit centers for the human overlords who suck their meager existence from the speed and endurance of the world's oldest breed of dog.

Last Friday we mentioned that in a desperate effort to keep from having to go out and get real jobs, the overlords were trying to pass a law that would allow slots to be placed at greyhound tracks in Broward and Miami-Dade counties in Florida.

Well, the votes have been counted and it looks like the good people of Miami-Dade county said get a job, while the folks over in Broward county said it's OK with us if you leech off the dogs, then dump them, as long as we can sit in air conditioning and lose our pension money.

The greyhound track that is about to receive the benefits of the yea vote is Hollywood Greyhound Track--yes that Hollywood (soon to be renamed Hallendale. Motto: We Need Your Money). As a service to the greyhound betting public in Broward county--at least those who can read--we offer a little tour of the establishment you are about to waste your savings on:

Long ago, the Hollywood track was a magnet for glitterati. Damon Runyon presented the raceway's first trophy 70 years ago. For decades, this place lured the likes of actor William Holden and sex bomb Jayne Mansfield. In its prime, it drew a half-million people each season, and even ten years ago, it was pulling down $65 million in live wagering a season. Attendance, however, collapsed during the 1990s. It now attracts fewer than 100,000 a year and took in a paltry $11.8 million last season.

Hmm...From 500,00 bettors to less than 100,000 in ten years. Well, you can only look at Jane Mansfield so many times without makeup, and isn't Damon Runyon one of the guys on Queer Eye For The Straight Guy? But let's move on:

The Hollywood track has drawn the scrutiny of federal prosecutors. A half dozen people were sentenced for a tax evasion scheme at the track that patrons and tellers contend took millions of dollars from federal coffers. Some tellers testified that illegal shortcuts are a way of life when it comes to betting the dogs at Hollywood.

Illegal shortcuts a way of life? We're shocked we tell you shocked! Let's ask one of the track regulars how this could be:

Warren G. Miller was a familiar sight at the Hollywood Greyhound Track through most of the 1990s. Toting a plastic bag filled with odds and ends, the Jheri-curled middle-ager shuffled around the betting parlor looking like a homeless man. With his top front teeth missing, he had a drooling problem and wiped his lips frequently with a handkerchief. Even so, Miller stood out from the down-and-out gamblers for only one thing: He was a key player in a scheme to bilk the IRS out of hundreds of thousands of tax dollars. Federal Judge Jose Gonzalez sentenced Miller to 18 months in prison and ordered him to pay the IRS $442,000 in restitution. The judge also meted out jail time, fines, and probation to a half dozen tellers for their part in the so-called ten-percenting scheme. The case reveals a deeply entrenched culture of fraud and greed at the track.

Oops. Guess we asked the wrong fellow. Our bad. But he looked so knowledgeable, so professional. Well, there was the whole teeth thing, and the speaking in tongues, but we thought it was just some kind of good luck ritual. Not that luck has anything to do with betting on dogs. It's a science you know. Most of the patrons have spent years in apprenticeships and intensive study. Let's meet some of them:

Roberto is a twig of a man with dark, rheumy eyes, caterpillar eyebrows, and a droopy face ripped from a Dali canvas. The few teeth remaining in his top gum are jagged and slightly skewed. His thick Italian accent makes him a bit difficult to understand. Despite myopia that borders on blindness, his mind is a handicapping machine. He asked that his last name not be used.

Roberto is a retired Nuclear Physicist who once worked on the Manhattan Project. Or so he says between swigs of his forty. Here's a friend of his:

Mike, a hulking Bulgarian with missing teeth who declined to give his last name. Mike has been betting the dogs for 23 years and at one time even owned greyhounds. He sits close to the TVs and mingles little during the 14-race live meets. "He's going to take a shot in the mouth one day, in the face," Mike says.

Sports was always about the camaraderie, the playful banter amongst the participants, the assault and batteries. Oh look, there's Stefo:

Stefo moved to Miami in the late 1950s and was introduced to dog racing when he took a job as a driver for a wealthy European who had a penchant for the dogs. He had a series of petty run-ins with the law -- excess parking tickets, expired license plates, some bounced checks -- and usually gravitated to the seamy side of life. In the 1960s, he recruited actresses for the makers of hard-core stag films.

Ah, sports and entertainment coming together under one roof. What synergy! It's like MGM merged with Nike, right Larry:

At 83 years old, Larry rarely misses a day or evening of racing. Today, like most days, he wears brown polyester pants, a baby-blue zippered coat, a plaid cotton shirt, and a "Hollywood Greyhound Track" hat. His yellowed white socks droop around his ankles. Everything he's wearing is overdue for laundering by a month or so.

Well, Larry's the bohemian type, which just goes to show greyhound racing has something for everyone, and a future so bright, those associated with it have to wear sunglasses, right Mr. Berg?

Howard Berg, once an announcer at various South Florida tracks and now a director of marketing at the Hollywood facility, recalls million-dollar nights and crowds of 10,000. Still, Berg is hopeful. He points out that children have been allowed at the track since the 1988-89 season, thanks to the Florida Legislature. "There's the future, to expose them to racing," Berg declares.

Let it not be said the Florida Legislature isn't one of the most forward looking in the country. What other legislative body, charged with the well being of the people who put them in office would have the foresight to see that letting children watch animals be exploited wouldn't be good for the economy. And they can learn about chemistry too:

Hollywood had one of the state's most egregious cases of dog doping. During a frenzied week in January 2003, four dogs trained by Kenneth Purdy took first place in their races. Winners are routinely tested, and the analyses turned up cocaine derivatives in the dogs' urine.

And recycling:

Down here, they used to take the dogs to the Everglades and gut them so there'd be enough blood that the gators would get 'em," contends Michelle Weaver, who with her husband operates Friends of Greyhounds in Sunrise.

So there you have it good people of Broward country, the 18% that turned out to vote, but particularly 82% who decided they'd rather make the early bird special at Denny's. The next time an overlord takes a load of dogs on a one way trip to the Everglades, I'm sure he'll be thankful that you chose the Grand Slam instead of the ballot.

No comments: