Michael LaPointe’s monthly column, Dice Roll, focuses on the art of the gamble, one famous gambler at a time.
In the late nineteenth century, at least according to legend, a fight to the death between a greyhound and a timber wolf was the most popular sport on the Native American reservations of South Dakota. Greyhounds had been brought to the region to help white settlers eradicate crop-eating jackrabbits, and it was said that the farmers would pit their animals against wolves captured by the local indigenous people.
Hobbling Homeward was the white man’s champion, a sixty-pound greyhound descended from a famous Irish hound named Master McGrath, whose heart was allegedly twice the size of a normal dog’s. “The Indians couldn’t believe the smaller animal could kill the fierce timber wolf,” it was said, and yet fight after fight, Hobbling Homeward prevailed.
One day, the men from the reservation claimed to have finally found a wolf who could defeat him. They staked $1,000, and “whites and Indians came for miles to see the fight,” including a young sports promoter named Owen Patrick Smith. When the wolf’s cage opened, a hideous, eighty-pound beast, “growling and snapping savagely,” leaped into the ring. A frenzy of gore ensued, “both animals scoring with their knifelike teeth,” but Hobbling Homeward managed to evade the wolf’s death-grip jaws and tore into his belly. “In less than two minutes,” the author wrote, “the great wolf lay in the arena gasping his last breath.” The greyhound was triumphant. The settlers roared.
The story, written by a sportswriter at the Miami Daily News some fifty years after the supposed event, has all the trappings of mythological etiology, like the Aeneid: the clash of civilizations, the triumph of the “civilized” bred animal, with his pristine bloodline, over the wild native—and the founding of an empire. By placing Owen Patrick Smith in the crowd that day, the author joined the writhing wolf and the blood-drenched dog to the origin of a multi-billion-dollar gambling phenomenon: greyhound racing.
Described as big, athletic, and “muffin-faced,” Owen Patrick Smith—or “O.P.,” as he was known to friends—was born in 1860 to a funeral parlor owner in Memphis, Tennessee. Not much is known of Smith’s early life or education, but he worked as a barber before finding himself in Hot Springs, South Dakota. At the time, Hot Springs was just a railroad stop amid ghost towns near the borders of Nebraska and Wyoming, but the landlocked region suited Smith just fine. A fortune-teller once told him he’d die while crossing a body of water, and he’d developed intense aquaphobia.
The Chamber of Commerce tasked Smith with promoting sports to attract people to Hot Springs, and so the muffin-faced entrepreneur touted tug-of-war contests. He almost certainly never witnessed any mortal combat between a greyhound and a timber wolf, but among his initiatives in Hot Springs, Smith did organize a coursing meet.
Coursing was a brutal forerunner of the modern greyhound race. A live hare would be given a head start, and two greyhounds would be set loose to chase it. Whoever tracked down the rabbit won the race. The sport was not for everyone. When the dog caught the hare, one spectator said, “It really sounds quite a bit like a child’s scream” Some say Smith, at the Hot Springs meet, was shocked by the sound. Others say that he was unbothered, but shrewdly identified the shrieks as hindering the sport’s popularity.
Regardless, Smith heard the call of destiny. He set about devising a mechanical hare that would bring greyhounds out of the blood, into the light.
By the time Smith witnessed his first coursing meet, the sport had been around for centuries. In the tomb of Ptahhotep, a Fifth Dynasty Egyptian priest, one can see two greyhounds engraved on a wall, about to be loosed on a lion, and in his Metamorphoses, Ovid uses a coursing metaphor to portray Apollo’s rapacious pursuit of Daphne:
Imagine a greyhound, imagine a hare it has sighted in open
country: one running to capture his prey, the other for safety.
The hound is about to close in with his jaws; he believes he is almost
there; he is grazing the back of her heels with the tip of his muzzle.
[. . .] So with Apollo and Daphne, the one of them racing in hope
and the other in fear.
(trans. David Raeburn)
Unlike the eponymous bus, greyhounds have always been associated with speed; they can reach over forty miles per hour. The dog’s ideal physique has never been so succinctly described as by Juliana Berners in The Book of Saint Albans (1486), a treatise on hawking, hunting, and heraldry: “Head lyke a snake. Necke lyke a drake. Back lyke a beame. Cheste lyke a breame. Foot lyke a cattle. Tayle lyke a rat.”
Hunting was one thing, but using greyhounds for sport was always a haphazard affair. A modern sport is never truly born until common rules and playing fields are established so that, like a scientific experiment, results can be accepted and compared—and reliably wagered upon. But as one writer said, “no one had the slightest idea of how to race dogs other than by turning them loose in a large pen to chase wild rabbits.” If modern tennis evolved out of the hourglass-shaped court and scoring system devised by Walter Wingfield, then greyhound racing awaited its own architect, in the form of O.P. Smith.
During the first years of the twentieth century, Smith doggedly worked on the artificial hare. His prototype was hardly inspiring—just a stuffed rabbit skin strapped to the back of a motorcycle—but by 1907, Smith had come up with a rickety design. The Inanimate Hare Conveyor comprised a narrow gauge railway buried in a ditch, along which a flat car with an overhead arm carried the furry lure ahead of the hounds. The hare weighed one pound; the conveyer weighed 1,600.
All Smith needed was a track. He constructed one on the salt marsh of Walker Flat, near Salt Lake City, “just a muddy oval surrounded by an unpainted board fence.” But despite his best intentions, Smith couldn’t cleanse the blood from the sport. The dogs accidentally slipped into the Conveyor’s rail and broke their legs. On top of which, his invention kept going on the fritz. The Mormons soon lost interest.
He tried Tucson in 1909, and Houston in 1912, but mechanical difficulties pursued his Conveyor. One serious problem was how to stop a 1,600-pound car that’s careening at over forty miles per hour. Smith’s first solution was to cut the electricity, then have the car run into a tunnel with heavy sacks of sand on a loose roof. The sacks would drop onto the car and slow its momentum, but this often mangled the machine. At other times, human error intervened. One lure operator became so engrossed in the race that he forgot to turn off the electricity. The Conveyor charged into the tunnel full tilt and smashed through the fence of the track.
These constant malfunctions made wagering on the races a fool‘s errand. One day, a drunk man waved around three dollars, saying he’d bet that the dogs would catch the rabbit. Some rube took the wager, believing the whole point of the Conveyor was that it always stayed ahead of the hounds. But sure enough, the contraption jumped the rails and the dogs tore the rabbit to shreds.
Mechanical difficulties were one thing, but this was also a dismal time to be launching a sport that appealed to gamblers. The years around 1910 marked what Jackson Lears, in Something For Nothing: Luck in America, calls “a low ebb” in both legal and illegal gambling. All across America, antigambling crusades had made significant inroads. Even the more exalted sport of horse racing only existed in Kentucky, Maryland, and a handful of other places.
But Smith would not be deterred. In 1919, the Conveyor’s difficulties were finally overcome at a track in Emeryville, California, near Oakland. He’d teamed up with two key individuals: Tom Keen, an ex-cowboy, and George Sawyer, a nightclub owner. The handy Keen helped Smith perfect the Conveyor, while Sawyer was talented at drumming up interest among the sporting crowd. Oddly enough, for someone who’d become known as the father of greyhound racing, Smith was a fervid antigambler. He wanted racing to be purely a spectator sport. But as one writer put it, “neither horses nor dogs will hold patrons unless the citizenry can wager a bit,” and Sawyer finally persuaded Smith to give betting his blessing.
The Emeryville track is considered the first proper greyhound track in America, but its success was short-lived. The trio still sought fertile soil, and at last they found it, in Florida. A real estate boom was underway in the state, and the legendary aviator and motorcyclist Glenn Curtiss was developing a project on land once known as Humbuggus, now called Hialeah. To attract people to the development, Curtiss helped Smith build the Miami Kennel Club, which was situated so close to the Everglades that a full-time snake catcher had to be kept on staff. The first race was run on March 1, 1922. Over five thousand people came to see Old Rosebud take the sixty-dollar purse.
In these early days, many races were, as one sportswriter said, “crooked as the dog’s hind legs.” To fix the outcome, dogs would be overfed or drugged. They might have their toes cinched by rubber bands, or abused with pebbles or cinders. But at Hialeah, Smith strove to make the sport honest. Two hours before the race, the hounds would be placed in secure kennels, preventing any last-minute tampering. Their weight would be checked, and if it varied by more than one-and-a-half pounds from what was listed, they’d be scratched.
Further innovations finally put the Hialeah track over the top. Smith introduced overhead lights, so the dogs could race at night, appealing to white, working-class crowds (black bettors were forced to stand outside the fence and pass their wagers over). And Tom Keen invented the “tote board,” a machine that tallied the bets on each dog, computed the odds, and announced the winners. At long last, greyhound racing had coalesced into a modern sport, thrilling for spectators and trustworthy for gamblers. Night after night, crowds flocked to see what the Pensacola News called “the hounds of the endless oval.”
By the end of Smith’s life, he held fifty-three patents on greyhound-racing technology, and was the high commissioner of a sport that was expanding across the country. He died suddenly, in 1927, from a brief illness following a nervous breakdown—on land, proving even a fortune-teller can’t predict a sure bet.
Smith was considered a paragon of virtue, but after his death, it would be years before his sport achieved a similar esteem. The same year that he died, five tracks opened in Chicago under such reputable owners as the O’Donnell Gang, the North Side Gang, and Al Capone’s Outfit. (Smith’s longtime partner, Tom Keen, died in February 1952, when he turned the key in his Cadillac and was blown up by dynamite.)
And if it wasn’t the mob keeping the sport in the mud, then promoters themselves often made it seem like little more than a freak show. In 1930, a Palm Beach couple named Loretta and Charlie David imported capuchin monkeys, dressed them up as jockeys, and strapped them into saddles on the backs of greyhounds. These so-called monkey jockeys often died from shaking during the race. (At a county fair in Galveston, Texas, in 2019, a monkey jockey was still made to run the “Banana Derby.”)
Nevertheless, Smith’s sport prospered, especially in Florida. By 1962, the state had seventeen tracks with some four million people betting over $175 million per year; and by 1987, Smith would’ve been happy to know, greyhound racing ranked sixth among American sports in spectator attendance, behind basketball and ahead of hockey. The high-water mark of greyhound revenue was reached in 1991, when betting receipts across the United States totaled $3.5 billion.
But gradually, the animal rights critique that first inspired the Inanimate Hare Conveyor brought down greyhound racing. In 2005, Michael Atkinson and Kevin Young, sociologists at McMaster University and the University of Calgary, respectively, interviewed people across the sport in an effort to document some of its nastier features. “Culling happens,” a breeder told them. “When a [puppy] has no place in the business at all, you face an ugly task. We won’t risk letting the puppy go to a pet store or family, because they might breed it and get a champion from one of the litters… Most of the time, I’d drown the pups.” Meanwhile, wrote Atkinson and Young, low-budget tracks use “4-D” food (dead, dying, downed, diseased) and one track worker described the process of retiring the athletes: “We used to employ a bunch of local hicks to make [them] ‘go away.’ ”
Racing advocates say such claims are exaggerated, cherry-picked, or downright false. Nevertheless, recent years saw the sport shrink. By 2018, Florida had become the only state with anything like a robust racing scene, and that year, the state debated whether to accept Constitutional Amendment 13, which would prohibit wagering on the races. Lara Trump, wife of Eric, appeared at Mar-a-Lago with her greyhounds in support of the amendment. “As soon as my father-in-law was inaugurated,” she said, she hoped she might “move the needle a little bit and make things better for animals.” Amendment 13 was approved; by the end of 2020, all remaining greyhound tracks in the state would close.
“O.P. is gone,” an employee at the Miami Beach Kennel Club lamented, the day Smith died in 1927. “He was our best pal, and though we shall see him no more, he will be with us nightly, so long as greyhound racing goes on, for his will and spirit will live with the sport.” The year 2020 was meant to mark a gradual, ceremonial end to greyhound racing, a fitting tribute to the spirit of O.P. Smith. And then came COVID-19. On March 26, crowds and gatherings were prohibited in Florida. Just two days later, the tracks abruptly closed. The final greyhound race seemed to echo Smith’s early days, when spectators scorned his sport. As the dogs bent around the track, no one was there to watch them.
Michael LaPointe is a writer in Toronto. His debut novel, The Creep, will be published by Random House Canada in 2021.