As the dogs are led onto the track for the finals of the $150,000 World Greyhound Classic, a well-dressed woman glides through the grandstand crowd and makes her way to the rail, just a few feet from two of the favorites in the race. "Tippy! Streaker!" she calls out. "Good boys! Come on boys, you've got to do it!"
Streaker gives the woman an obvious look of recognition. After all, he sometimes curls up at the foot of Pauline O'Donnell's bed and watches television with her. Tippy, characteristically, is aloof, although he knows his mistress will give him his favorite treat--a sausage or a hot dog--if he wins.
The scene may seem quaint and folksy, but the greyhound operation of Pauline and Barney O'Donnell is anything but. They breed, raise and race hundreds of dogs around the country, and their kennel is so strong that they have three of the eight finalists in the world classic--My Tipper, My Red Streak and Magnificat.
But even with so much money at stake, O'Donnell can't help but view the dogs in the way that you or I might think of our cocker spaniel. When an onlooker notes that she hasn't bothered to give a pep talk to Magnificat, O'Donnell says, "He's just another dog. Tippy and Streaker are my pets; they're my pride and joy."
Greyhounds were a widespread passion in County Cork, Ireland, where O'Donnell grew up. She raced dogs there as a hobby, and one of them, Yellow Printer, was so good he became something of a national hero. The home folks were so proud of Yellow Printer that they even held a testimonial dinner for him.
Her success encouraged O'Donnell to try racing dogs professionally, and she came to Florida to try it. She fared respectably well for a year when she met her future husband, a Boston Irishman who was already well-established in the dog business. When they joined forces, they forged a greyhound kennel that operates on a scale that dwarfs almost anything in the thoroughbred game.
The O'Donnells own a breeding farm in Texas where they keep some 400 dogs and have a staff of a dozen employees. The center of the operation, however, is here. Young greyhounds come from the farm to Florida for their initial training. Barney supervises them and Pauline decides which ones will go to which tracks.
The best of them stay here, where the purses are highest, and where the O'Donnells have six different trainers with day-to-day responsibility for overseeing the dogs. The less-talented ones are shipped to lesser tracks in Connecticut, West Virginia or northern Florida. The kennel has its own trucks to move its dogs around the country.
From here, the O'Donnells maintain daily telephone contact with their trainers in the hinterlands; Barney has an extraordinary command of the details of this whole far-flung operation. "My husband can walk into our kennel at Jacksonville and he'll recognize every single dog," Pauline O'Donnell said.
Most successful kennels work on a comparably large scale; there aren't many mom-and-pop operations in greyhound racing. "Having a large enough supply of dogs is the main thing in this business," she said. Indeed, the economics of the game are such that big kennels can hardly fail to make money.
Competition at greyhound tracks isn't open, as it is at horse tracks. A dog track gives "booking"--i.e., permission to race--to only a small number of kennels. At Hollywood, for example, only 29 kennels are allowed to enter dogs in non-stakes races, which means that everybody is going to get his piece of the pie. "If you don't have any unusual hazards," Pauline O'Donnell said, "this is an excellent business."
While the system guarantees them a measure of success, the O'Donnell kennel has done much better than that; it has dominated the other big kennels at Hollywood this winter, winning $114,000 in the first 2 1/2 months. And the key to that success, O'Donnell argues, is food.
Although training technique is important, she says, "We tell all our trainers that feeding the dogs is the most important thing; you can't cut corners. Their bones are very delicate and you've got to give them a lot of calcium. Before stakes races, we feed them a lot of carbohydrates. Tippy and Streaker dine on straight spaghetti before the world classic."
Sixty-four dogs had entered the world classic, and a series of six qualifying races had pared the field to eight finalists. My Tipper was clearly the superior dog in the early rounds; he would usually explode out of the starting box, angle straight to the rail and run away from his rivals.
When he drew the favorable No. 2 post position for the world classic, O'Donnell was convinced he couldn't lose. She even chose a blue dress--the same color as the cloth My Tipper wore to designate him as No. 2--to wear to the track, so that she and the dog would be color-coordinated in the winner's circle photo.
But a split second after the starting boxes opened, she knew that "Tippy" was no sure thing. He didn't break with his usual sharpness, and other dogs were beating him in the crucial run to the first turn. Now O'Donnell focused her attention on No. 3, My Red Streak, who had broken quickly and was battling for the lead to the first turn when--wham!--another dog bumped him off stride. That's the nature of the game.
She saw the No. 8 dog open a commanding five-length lead coming out of the first turn and she wondered momentarily, "Who is that eight dog?" until she realized it was her own Magnificat, the one who is "just another dog."
Magnificat led all the way to win easily, then was led to a little pedestal in the winner's circle where he was draped with a red-and-gold blanket saying "World Classic Champion 1985" and he obligingly posed for photographs. Yet Pauline O'Donnell wasn't beaming.
At the victory party, she said sadly, "I just don't understand what happened to Tippy."
"What does it matter?" a callous soul pointed out. "You got the money, anyway."
"There's more to this sport than money," she responded.
Maybe. But with an operation like the O'Donnells', there is always going to be plenty of money, too.