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.