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Delavan, WI 

These Parts/Going to the Dog Track

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I didn't think a visit to the new Geneva Lakes dog track would make me sad, but it did. It happened before I even had a chance to lose any money. The minute they raised the doors on the little metal starting boxes and the greyhounds bolted out, some memory trigger popped, and I could feel my own dog Leo brushing past my leg, could see him charging out the door and down the street, a small furry blur hell-bent on freedom.

This was a familiar scenario in the life Leo and I shared, though I hadn't thought about it for a long time. He would sit around, perfectly mellow, until the doorbell rang. Then, while I attempted to greet some unsuspecting visitor, he would make his move, hurtling past me as if his life depended on it. Once, looking back over his shoulder to see if we were in pursuit, he ran straight into the side of a moving car and had to be taken to the hospital. But usually he would stop after a couple of blocks to check something out, and we would catch him. If we didn't, he would eventually return on his own, badly in need of a bath.

The Geneva Lakes Kennel Club, a sprawling, pink puppy palace in the cornfields of Delavan, Wisconsin, had been shaping up as a pleasant enough place, sort of a cross between a theme park and the Woodfield mall. It has a huge parking lot, a fast-food court, a vast, climate-controlled, fluorescent environment, and a wholesome clientele of senior citizens and sunburned families. Everything about it is cheerful and sanitized. Toilets flush automatically while you're standing there looking for a handle, and scrubbed young "tellers" wish you luck as they take your money. Any grungy track regulars who might be hanging around are outnumbered 50 or 60 to 1 by white-haired ladies in spotless white pants. It doesn't cost much to get in either. One dollar to park and the same amount to enter the grandstand.

The only sobering note in the whole place is the IRS sign at the betting window reminding big winners they'll have to pay taxes. That prompted a perfect stranger to solicit my losing tickets to offset his gains ("They'll take anything except the ones with boot marks," he said.)

Geneva Lakes is one of four dog tracks that opened in Wisconsin this summer, after the state legislature determined that such facilities are not, after all, the last step on the road to hell. It is the biggest thing to happen to the Lake Geneva area since Chicago's captains of industry gave up competitive mansion building there 60 years ago. Its owner is a publicity-shy real estate developer named Anthony Antoniou, who got his start building houses in the southern and western suburbs of Chicago. Antoniou's Lombard-based Anvan Companies own the Barclay and Knickerbocker hotels, Printers Square, and numerous other Chicago properties, and has bought up enough of the Delavan-Lake Geneva area to turn it into a fiefdom. Anvan owns the area's three largest resorts--the Abbey, Interlaken, and Lake Lawn Lodge--and is developing Geneva National Golf Club, which will include three golf courses, a hotel, and about 2,000 homes and condos.

The dogs at Geneva Lakes don't look anything like Leo, nor do they exhibit much typical canine barking and wagging behavior. Many visitors to the track have trouble thinking of them as dogs and persist in referring to them as horses, though they actually resemble giant mutant mice. They weigh between 55 and 80 pounds and have long noses, sharp eyes, small ears, skinny tails, and long, delicate legs. Their underbellies curve in an S shape, and their fur is short and comes in muted shades, mostly brown, charcoal, or brindle.

Before the race each greyhound is suited up in a colored jacket with a number on it and an apparatus that looks like a gas mask but turns out to be a nose guard. Then, to the accompaniment of recorded big-band music from the loudspeaker, the dogs are paraded before the fans. Their exact current weight is announced, in case they happen to have dropped three or four pounds while relaxing in the paddock.

The race itself, like so many other things in life, is over before you've really gotten into it. The dogs are placed in the starting boxes, the trainers lope down the track, the mechanized lure--a plastic bone on wheels--begins to roll. "Heeere comes Bucky" trumpets from the public-address system, the doors snap open, and they're off. The course is less than a third of a mile long; the fastest dogs cover it in 32 seconds, the laggards in 34. By the time you spot your pup in the flying pack of legs, jackets, and masks, he's already won or (more likely) lost. In a 14-race program, there are seven minutes of action and four hours of beer, brats, and great spicy fries.

Picking a dog that is likely to win is not all that difficult, though my original system of betting on the one with the name I liked best doesn't work. There is no reason to assume, for example, that Lota Hot Stuff will be any faster than Mr. Dufur, or that a dog with the same name as your daughter is a personal omen of incredible good fortune that should be acted upon. And forget about eyeballing the dogs for a clue. They've been so carefully bred, they're practically clones. Unless one is on crutches, you won't see anything that matters.

What you have to do, as I was informed by Sister Mary, a nun I met in the grandstand, is learn to read the program. This is initially daunting, because it contains information on a few thousand variables, most of it in code, like "Blckd 1st-Coll" or "Nvr A Thrt Ins." But you will quickly figure out that some of these bits of information are more relevant than others. Unless you're handicapping on a mainframe computer, for example, it probably won't matter who your dog's mom and pop are, or what position he was in at the one-eighth pole on a race he ran three weeks ago. The trick is to focus on the matter at hand, which is how long it might take one dog to get to the finish line relative to the seven dogs he's running against. Fortunately, two expert consultants named Railbird and Trackman have already gone to work on this puzzle, and their conclusions are printed right there on the bottom line of the page for us to copy--though without any guarantees.

The real challenge at the track is to understand the betting system. If you've had a recent course in advanced statistics, you'll pick it up right away. If not, you can attend a free class (noon on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday; 6:30 on Wednesday) at which a nice man who works at the track will attempt to explain quinielas, trifectas, superfectas, and other ways to complicate the bet and reduce your chances of winning. He will also introduce you to elaborate hedging techniques such as wheels and boxes. When you've mastered these, you'll be able to spend, say, $42 on a $2 bet.

After you've left all your money at the betting windows, you can saunter over to the adoption center. The program director, Maggie Young, will do a good job of convincing you that these exotic creatures, bred to run around a track at speeds in excess of the city limit for motor vehicles, will make fine house pets. If you have $75 and a fenced yard, and are not some kind of animal pervert, you can probably (after a wait of two to six months) take one home. Young swears that he (or she) will want nothing more than a comfortable spot on the couch, four and one-half cups of Purina Hi Pro daily, and an occasional sedate walk. According to Young, these noble animals, whose ancestors stood at the side of the pharaohs, are couch potatoes at heart.

The adoption center is full of photos that back her up--framed black-and-white shots of greyhounds lounging demurely on sofas--and there's always a dog around to prove the point. The day I was there a two-year-old track washout named Homer had drawn this PR duty. Homer was an enormous hit, moving gently forward on his leash to say hello, kissing politely--the very essence of canine affection, intelligence, and civility. Everyone who came in wanted him. But when he settled back on his blanket, turned his long, delicate muzzle in my direction and looked at me, I could see it wasn't couches he was thinking of, but doorbells and the green streets of freedom. Rest in peace, Leo.

For information on Delavan and the Lake Geneva area, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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