By Jeff Balke
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Ferd West isn't a sentimental guy. He's a self-made businessman with a car dealership who grew up on a watermelon and peanut farm with 14 siblings in rural Texas. "When you come off a watermelon farm, everything else is easy in life," he says.
Still, West can wax nostalgic about his favorite dog, Wake Up. As he cruises past the remains of his greyhound farm in his Cadillac Escalade outside Gonzales, West points to the dog's grave. "In his time, Wake Up was like Secretariat," he says. "No one in Texas wanted to race against him."
Most greyhounds travel in cages or in air-conditioned trailers with other dogs. Not Wake Up. West's dog traveled by airplane. At his peak, he won an astounding ten races in a row. At the time, it looked like the dog would make West a very rich man.
When Wake Up was whelped in 1989, greyhound racing seemed poised to become the state's next big thing. Texas voters had approved pari-mutuel wagering two years earlier, and dog tracks were being built up and down the Gulf Coast.
Along with dog racing came horse racing, but the costs associated with breeding and maintaining horses put the sport out of range for middle-class, rural folk like West. Almost anyone with enough passion and dedication, though, could raise greyhounds. Investors like Paul Bryant, Jr. (son of the legendary Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant) sank money into greyhound tracks across the country. At Gulf Greyhound Park in La Marque, celebrities like Bum Phillips and Kenny Rogers came out to the park on the weekends.
By the early '90s, greyhound racing had gone prime time.
Meanwhile, Ferd West was cashing in with Wake Up. In 1991, he won the first-ever championship for a Texas-bred dog. Later the same year, Wake Up won a $100,000 stakes race in Seabrook, New Hampshire, while setting the track record. The dog was voted Captain of the Greyhound All-America Team.
West was making serious money and it looked like things would only get better with Wake Up's pups. For a while, business was good. At one point in the mid-1990s, West owned approximately 250 dogs. In addition to the track, West was making money selling vials of Wake Up's semen at around $1,000 a pop.
But even as West's greyhound business thrived, the gambling landscape was changing. Las Vegas-style casinos arrived, first in Louisiana, then in Oklahoma and New Mexico. Dog tracks couldn't compete with the glitz of places like Lake Charles's L'Auberge du Lac, where you could play poker, check into a spa or catch a show by Bill Cosby. Then there was the Internet. "Online gambling has changed everything," says Jim Ebbs, who has been racing director of Gulf Greyhound since it opened in 1992.
A decade after Wake Up's streak of wins, tracks started cutting races. Greyhound breeders were going out of business. There simply weren't enough dogs to keep up with the racing schedule. To make matters worse for people like West and Ebbs, animal rights groups piled on, accusing the greyhound industry of dumping unproductive dogs.
Now 65 years old and semiretired, West is hanging on, racing his 12 dogs at out-of-state "racinos" — tracks with slot machines or casinos — in West Virginia. "I was losing money in Texas," he says. "Without casinos, greyhound racing won't last much longer."
Jim Ebbs has been involved with greyhounds for most of his life. Like most people in dog racing, he started early. As a teenager in Daytona Beach, Florida, he worked as a lead-out for a local track. Lead-outs walk the dogs from the paddock to the starting box. They handle the dogs while state-appointed vets administer drug tests. "It's a good part-time job for a teenager," he says. After a couple of years, he worked his way up from lead-out to become a trainer.
Ebbs dropped out of college and got a job at a greyhound track in Miami. In 1986, he moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where Paul Bryant bought a track. It was a good break for Ebbs, but with a seating capacity of 2,400, the Council Bluffs track was the minor leagues compared to Bryant's plans for La Marque. Bryant was perhaps the single biggest player in the greyhound industry. He seized on the new opportunity in Texas, building what he hoped would be the premier dog track in the nation.
While it was under construction, Gulf Greyhound was the subject of major media attention. So many people wanted to build a dog park near Houston that competing bidders started suing each other and accusing one another of Mafia connections. Someone put the carcass of an Atwater's prairie chicken on the grounds of a League City bidder. The bird, an endangered species, could have disqualified the applicant.
The competition was so cutthroat that it took five years for Bryant to finally build the park he wanted. When the park was nearing completion, the Houston Chronicle published an article claiming that it would be "the biggest, most expensive and most likely richest racetrack ever built in this country" with a total price tag of around $50 million.