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A Day at the Races

The secret lives of greyhounds


Enjoy the view; if you're not up front, all you're getting is sand thrown up in your face," according to lure operator Rodney Penn. - OWEN PERKINS
  • Owen Perkins
  • Enjoy the view; if you're not up front, all you're getting is sand thrown up in your face," according to lure operator Rodney Penn.

8:10 p.m.: Rocky Mountain Greyhound Park

Bels Sunset gets a slow start, coming out of the starting block in eighth place in an eight-dog race.

In front of her, Highland Swen collides into Mi Munch, knocking her to the ground and forcing another dog to hurdle her to avoid a pile-up. Sunset is not so quick to identify the obstacles in the field, and she trips over Mi Munch, scraping three of her legs and her face. Sunset gets on her feet again, but she is disoriented and has to be removed from the track quickly before the rest of the pack catches her a lap later as they approach the finish line.

Sunset remains on edge an hour later when her trainer, B.J. Wyrick, brings her back to the kennel for the night. Wyrick is one of the few people Sunset comes into contact with on a regular basis, and he calls her "Sweetheart." She is just over a year and half. Songster, her mother, winner of a $40,000 stake at the 1995 Irish American Sweepstakes, is 60 miles away in Penrose, trying to get pregnant. Sunset never knew her father, although she's met the vet who surgically implanted her sire's frozen sperm in Songster.

The circumstances of her birth led to her being labeled a "pupsicle."

6:05 a.m.: San Isabel Kennels, Penrose

Morning serenade, they call it. The yapping begins shortly after dawn, and the chorus is repeated anytime someone comes near the caged thoroughbreds. Like every other morning, the bleary-eyed crew ready for a full day of care and training is composed of Earl Hickman, his daughter Anne, her husband Bill Diggs, and their dog trainer Don Tessier.

First on the agenda is to check on Maggie's new puppies. They're only 3 weeks old, and their "momma's being a brat," according to Anne. "She's been napping at her puppies, so we've had to separate them."

The Hickmans specialize in training dogs from a year to 16 months of age, the most crucial time in the training process. But they currently keep 41 puppies under 4 months old. There is virtually no training for dogs at this age, but their personality is pieced together out of time spent with their mother and interacting with humans. "If they've got a good mother," Anne adds, "they don't need much else."

Don Tessier holds a young greyhound on his first trip out of the pen. - OWEN PERKINS
  • Owen Perkins
  • Don Tessier holds a young greyhound on his first trip out of the pen.

At three months, the puppies graduate from a mid-sized "monster pen" with a couple old shoes to play with to slightly more confined quarters, pens for two dogs featuring a long narrow space where the dogs can unleash their instinctive desire to run fast.

"They come out of these runs in perfect shape," Anne explains, having worked themselves at their own pace tearing up and down the pens.

"Some people think we're cruel to the dogs and making them do stuff," Don adds, but he points to the long pens as evidence that "they do it because they love it."

The formal training begins at 12 months old, when the dogs begin working with lures. "They have a natural instinct to chase," according to Wyrick, a trainer for Ryan Racing at Rocky Mountain Greyhound Park. "Through the training, you try to magnify that intensity of chasing."

Hickman uses a drag lure attached to a string that can be pulled mechanically across a sand lot while the dogs are let loose to chase after it. The lure is a "squawky, fuzzy thing," kind of like a rubber chicken with animal fur on it that makes a noise more like a duck than anything.

"This all started with me 60 years ago chasing coyotes," Hickman confides, "using a crossbred greyhound." He seems to relish the days when the hounds were used for the practical and profitable task of ridding the country of coyote. Initially, during the Depression years, Hickman could get $14 from fur buyers for a coyote pelt, "and that was big money" he adds. During WWII, the coyote population was so large that the county began paying $2 for a pair of coyote ears. While Hickman won't say that there are too many coyotes these days, he admits there are still a lot of them around. "I have to watch them pretty close."

Hickman's son-in-law, Bill, brings out Danger for a short workout on the "whirligig," a hand operated lure on a wheel used to train the dogs to run in circles and to make the track's turns. Danger didn't do well on his first race at RMGP, running and hiding behind the starting box while the others joined the chase. "It's because of close breeding," Hickman explains, critical of Danger's owner's approach. Anne adds that another reason Danger is such a "spooky dog" is that he wasn't handled enough as a puppy.

The Hickmans distinguish themselves from larger kennels of up to 900 dogs in their ability to give "hands-on" attention to their 71 dogs. As a family operation, they have three generations of eager "handlers" who take any opportunity to play with the pups and the training hounds. "They get a lot of loving," Bill assures.

6:25 p.m.: Schooling in session

Back at the track, Rodney Penn revs Rocky up to full speed. Penn has been the lure operator for 15 years, arriving at the track at the crack of dawn for the Tuesday and Friday unofficial schooling sessions where dogs who have never raced before share the track with rehabilitating racers, all working their way up through official schooling and the ultimate carrot -- stakes racing at the track.

Anxiously awaiting post time in the paddocks. - OWEN PERKINS
  • Owen Perkins
  • Anxiously awaiting post time in the paddocks.

During the early-morning unofficial schooling, trainers like Wyrick go out on the track with the dogs, helping them learn the turns in the large track and spending a couple of months preparing them to race for real.

The old stuffed rabbit lure, traveling up to 40 mph around the track, was long ago replaced by a more politically correct bone. Hickman and Wyrick can remember the days when it wasn't unusual to use live rabbits, at least for training purposes. "Jack rabbits were so numerous you could pick up a hundred in no time," Hickman recalls. "Just go out at night with a hot spotlight and a net."

9:20 p.m.: Turning down the dogs

Back in her kennel behind the track, Sunset must share Wyrick with more than 50 other greyhounds. They yap and howl for his attention from within their 3-by-4-by-4-foot crates, small metal pens with a blanket in each, stacked two high in a 40-foot-long indoor kennel.

"Greyhounds are nesting animals," Wyrick explains as he lets the females out for a bedtime romp around the small outdoor pen. "They prefer to have their own small space; that goes back even to the Egyptian times."

Wyrick's plans for Sunset include an unspecified amount of time for R&R. The injuries are relatively minor, but she is badly shaken up and needs time to rebuild her confidence. "When she's healed up, we'll decide from there. I'll probably move her back and start her back at the 16-month stage," he projects.

A quarter-mile away, Rocky the Bone is off and running again, and the dogs in Wyrick's kennel all crowd around the trackside fence, whining and barking at the sound of the mechanical lure circling the track. Wyrick speaks for the pack, saying, "We wish we were chasing."

Although the Hickmans enjoy a good personal relationship with the Cañon City division of the Humane Society, Tessier admits that, in general, "they feel that we're barbarians." Despite internal and statewide supervision, there are plenty of owners and trainers less scrupulous than the Hickmans and Wyricks. Hickman tells stories of animals confiscated from kennels where they had not been cared for, where they were left in crates, unfed and unable to go to the bathroom.

One area in which things have gotten better is the life a greyhound leads after retirement. Greyhounds as Pets is a charitable foundation dedicated to finding good homes for retired racing greyhounds, saving them from the standard fate of their ancestors who were often euthanized at the end of their career. Wyrick has two greyhounds as pets himself, dogs who raced for him before finally earning the right to leave their crates behind and share space on the couch with Wyrick and his two children. "They make great pets," Penn, the lure operator, confirms, "but if you want a watchdog, don't get a greyhound. They'll watch the burglar take your stuff."

The future remains uncertain for Sunset. But for the time being, at least, with her mother semi-retired in Penrose and Wyrick affectionately patting her head, she is in capable hands.

Greyhounds as Pets

INFO -- For information about adopting a grehound, write to:

Greyhounds as Pets
P.O. Box 6999
Colorado Springs, CO 80934
or call 800/RITE PET

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