The Draft Dog and the Racing Gods

By Dennis McKeon

Draft dogs like Benny slept in the crates nearest the open door. Marcia Herman at Melbourne.

Draft dogs like Benny slept in the crates nearest the open door. Marcia Herman at Melbourne.

Benny was the draft dog. He was gangly, good-natured, red brindled and reasonably well mannered in the kennel. Most dogs who were as ineffectual a competitor as Benny, were apt to zig when others would zag, and the old timers had a saying about them, which went something like “if they do things right in the kennel, they’ll do things right on the track”. Benny was the exception who proved the rule, fittingly for Benny, in reverse. Benny was all right.

He was approaching 48 months of age, way past prime for a racing dog. He had crafted a stunningly undistinguished career out of his pure indifference, and for over two years, had contested only the lower grade events at Wonderland Park, in Revere, Massachusetts. Every once in a while, when the urge struck him, he might actually get tired of hanging on the dog closest to him, forget about his stiff wrist, and make a half-hearted attempt at the lure. But not so often. Still, he managed to win enough races to earn his keep. And so it was that he himself was kept, as the draft dog.

The draft dog is what I would call the one who beds down closest to the door by the turnout pens, and absorbs the most of the merry, musical gusts of winter, helping to keep the icy blasts from directly affronting those individuals more favored by the racing gods. Ah…the Racing Gods…they don’t smile too fondly upon draft dogs. I had always suspected that they never even noticed them.

Even though he was the sort of dog who could make a trainer look really bad, I truly liked Benny. There was nothing extraordinary about him, other than his perfect ordinariness. But he was always glad to see you, even when you weren’t glad to see yourself. I appreciate that in a dog.

Oh, yes…and Benny was from Ireland. He was one of the great Pat Dalton’s. Though for the life of me, I can’t remember his breeding, or who his littermates were. No doubt, they were faster than Benny. And there is every possibility that they are lurking somewhere in the pedigrees of your finest racers and breeders today. And good old Benny? Well, he’s probably still the draft dog, in some lower-echelon Racing God’s heavenly kennel. Because, as it turned out, the Racing Gods had indeed been scouting Benny, as we were both about to learn.

Anyway, the big news at the time was that Black Aztec, an Australian champion of unthinkable might and power, was coming to America. He would arrive amidst a glorious fanfare, and to humble our greatest athletes. He would refuse no challenge, and he would give no quarter. He would take no prisoners, and he would not need to.

They would show the videotape of his greatest races prior to the reruns at Wonderland each evening, and the truth was, that this brilliant, flashy, laser beam of a greyhound appeared to be all that he was cracked-up to be. He was a lot faster than Benny, that’s for sure. He was, obviously, a particular favorite of the Racing Gods.

There was an even entourage who had flown across the wide, blue Pacific, as an advance team for Black Aztec, to arrange a few match races, and to set up a breeding syndication for him. Australia’s loss was to be America’s gain, as had happened more than a few times in history.

I was making my pre-race rounds one night, walking down the mainline, checking out the distaff members of the audience, letting them have the unforgettable thrill of seeing at close range, a real, live greyhound trainer. I noticed the Black Aztec Contingent, schmoozing with a few of the more prominent kennel owners on the Clubhouse ground floor. There was an attractive, well-dressed, blond-haired lady, who appeared to be their spokesperson. The “High-Priestess of Aztec-Nation”, I remember thinking–and I was drawn to her, just like the drafts were drawn to Benny.

She, on the other hand, took absolutely no notice of me, which was surprising, as in those days, I generally reeked of liniment. Absorbine, if you’re keeping track. I thought, at the very least, she would smell me. But apparently, the overwrought, musk-laden gesticulations of the schmoozers-in-rut, had rendered her senseless to any other olfactory stimulation.

So I struck up a conversation with one of the several men who appeared to be her acolytes. Turns out, this fellow was a trainer, quite affable and very knowledgeable. He began to tell me of a technique called “muscle manipulation”, of which I had heard, but had dismissed as only quackery.

He told me, among other things, that sometimes what appears to be a vague wrist problem, can actually be a shoulder problem. You see, dogs don’t really have shoulder joints, at least not like other joints. Their front legs are actually girdled by an intricate network of muscles.

Nevertheless, by using the technique of muscle manipulation, this man assured me that many of the heretofore-thought-of-as-mysterious-and-nagging-wrist problems were actually shoulder impingement problems, which radiated downward. And they could often be corrected. He explained how to manipulate the shoulder muscles to achieve the desired result, a distinct “pop”, which I assumed would break adhesions, restore proper alignment, and magically free the dog from his restrictions.

I was pretty excited at being in possession of this wondrous knowledge, and I thanked my new friend profusely for imparting it to me.

No worries, mate, I could tell you were a trainer right away–you reek of bloody Absorbine”.

Can’t say that I actually remember when I decided that Benny was to be the recipient of the mercies of my new-found powers, but it was shortly thereafter. He had run yet another, miserable, fail-by-the-numbers race, and as usual, the next day, he had that almost undetectable hiccup in his get-along.

But this time, after going over the rest of him, rubbing him down, filing his nails, and making sure the stiff wrist had not one iota of filling, I led him off the grooming bench, and I stood him flat on the old oaken floor. I straddled him, told him what a great old boy he truly was, and I commenced to bestowing upon him, my magical ministrations. And sure enough, the shoulder “popped”, just as my Australian friend had assured me it would.

Did you hear that, Don?”

Hear what?”

That pop. That’s what was bugging Benny all along. It’s actually his shoulder that’s his issue, not his wrist.”

Oh…hmmm…you don’t say? Pretty clever, aren’t you?”

Don Cuddy, an Irish-born and schooled trainer of international repute, and of unparalleled accomplishment, had grown accustomed to my perpetual tinkerings with the veteran, more experienced dogs in the kennel. I had a soft spot and a bit of a flair for these tough old warriors, and I think he had recognized it early on–and he had always lent his inestimable wisdom and bemused commentary to my grand experiments.

So Benny became a project. I zoned right in on him, and repeated the manipulation several times before his next race, which was yet another, dismal, Grade D affair. I must confess, I was more than a bit self-satisfied when he smoked the field, as if he had been doing that sort of thing all his racing life.

He then proceeded to win his Grade C race with equal panache and consummate ease. My own emotional state was beginning to assume an air of insufferable smugness, when he repeated his performance in Grade B. And now, approaching four years of age, Benny had risen to lofty, dizzying, heights, heretofore unthinkable and unknowable to him. The draft dog was in Grade A.

The betting public had taken no notice of Benny’s remarkable turnabout, and in all cases, the payoffs on him were stupendous. I wondered if he could actually see the Racing Gods from that lofty precipice, where he now stood, and if they had suddenly taken an interest in this humblest of servants, only to play a cruel joke upon him later–and then upon his not-so-humble handler.

Well, the Racing Secretary at Revere must have been their Court Jester. Benny drew into his first ever Grade A race, against none other than Hondo Monopoly, a box-beating lightning bolt, who was considered (correctly) by most, to be among the fastest dogs in the country. As if that weren’t enough, Benny drew the 7-hole, usually condemnation for a rail dog like Benny.

But we made no concessions to the cruel Fates, Benny and I. We got ready, as we always did. And do you know what? Benny began to look mighty fine as we stood in the turnout pen together…mighty fine. And life was good there, in the cool of the evening, in those dusky, fleeting, mystical moments of anticipation. The wharf rats were scurrying among the cattails on the shoreline, beyond our fences. The laughing, silver seagulls were flying high. The track would be fast, the night would be clear. We loaded up, and set off for Benny’s debut before the Racing Gods, and their most favored seraphim, Hondo Monopoly.

Well, I wish I could tell you that Benny drafted behind Hondo Monopoly, swung out on the fourth turn, passed him in the deep stretch, and won the race with daylight to spare. But no such thing happened. Benny couldn’t match strides with him, either early on, or late in the race. But, amazingly, Benny ran him to about a length, and finished second, and in so doing, he beat some pretty good greyhounds that night, and at odds which were astronomical.

I could only imagine what the gamblers might have been thinking, or what curses they might have been imploring the Racing Gods to invoke upon me and good old Benny. I couldn’t wait to see the look on Don’s face when I informed him the next morning of how admirably Benny had acquitted himself against a true champion.

I hadn’t yet considered what the Grim Reapers of Racing Officialdom might be making of this whole Benny situation.

It was probably about a week later, when I learned that Benny’s urine sample, taken on the night of his long-awaited hotbox “coming out” party, had been positive for Procaine.

I looked around to see if I could spot the Racing Gods, doubled over, convulsing with laughter, slapping their chubby thighs, a palm held to their foreheads to keep from falling on their fat, cherub faces, in their unrequited mirth. Perhaps they had shrunk themselves up, and were hiding in the cubby holes of the message boxes, there in the Racing Office??

It was of no consolation to me, nor to Benny, when the High Tribunal at the perfunctory hearing, listened attentively, and I assumed, sympathetically, to my protestations and explanations.

Come on, guys…..procaine?….hey, I wouldn’t have run the dog if he needed penicillin….you guys know that……yeah, I know it looks suspicious when an old banger like Benny suddenly wakes up and….blah, blah, blah…..but you guys know that we don’t give it to ‘em….geez….. how many times are you guys gonna pull this stuff??….”

And it just so happens that Benny, due to his recent, unfamiliar exertions, had mildly strained some other area of his musculature, and so we shared our “vacations” together. We found out that Black Aztec would not be entertaining any match races, after all, as he too had come a-cropper, for some reason or other.

Still and all, it is with more than a little fondness, and a strange, melancholy aching, that I look back on those days now, and recall, in the mist of a moment, the image of Benny. The humble draft dog, standing above the riverbank, in the cool of the evening, behind the fences, beneath the fickle gaze of those not-so-benevolent deities. As the wharf rats scurried among the cattails, and the last of the weary sun rays escaped from the horizon, the peels of laughter raining down upon him, and all along the waterline, those silly songs of the silver seagulls. Or was it the Racing Gods? I’m still not sure.

Copyright, 2002

Addendum: Benny would finish up his career at Lincoln, and after retiring go to live out his days on a small farm, with a local couple. As it turns out, he was actually the “uncle” to the great Irish sire, Murlens Slippy. His sister would author a direct female line, whose descendants today include, among others, Flying Stanley, Flying Hydrogen and Flying Coal City. You just never know.

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