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.
When Gulf Greyhound finally opened its doors in late 1992, Gov. Ann Richards flew in from vacation for the ribbon-cutting. There were four levels at the track, including a clubhouse for 1,600 that used to sell out. There was valet parking for high rollers and a restaurant that could seat 1,900.
The track manager at the time, Butch Hughes, made rosy predictions. Hughes thought Gulf would be capable of yearly handles (the total amount of money bet at the track) of $250 million to $300 million and the highest purses ever recorded in the history of dog racing. The hype spread across the state. "If you've ever bred, led or raced a dog, this is what you hope for," said Jerry Donahew, a breeder.
Within three years, the huge handles disappeared. By 2006, the total on-track handle at Gulf was a relatively meager $18 million, about 6 percent of what track officials projected in 1992. Most of the track's revenue — another $36 million — comes from simulcast wagering on horse and dog races in other states.
The clubhouse and restaurant are now closed. There's no more valet parking. Ebbs estimates that total attendance at Gulf on a good night is around 1,200. "When I got into it, dog and horse racing were the only games in town," he says. "I've watched the whole gambling scene really blow up since the early '90s. Greyhound and horse racing have gone from the only games in town to just one of many choices."
Other tracks in the state have suffered even more. Corpus Christi Dog Track cut back races for the rest of 2007 after losing two kennels in recent months. Track Manager Rick Pimental said that while his track had no plans to close in the near future, "2008 is still up in the air."
The situation is worse in other parts of the country. In August the track in Wichita, Kansas, ceased live racing of greyhounds. Racing opponents in Massachusetts are promising a referendum on a statewide ban on the sport in the November 2008 election. Even in Florida — the Hollywood of dog racing — the sport has declined sharply. From 1993 to 2003, attendance at Florida tracks fell from 11.4 million to 2.7 million and the track in Tampa Bay also opted out of live races.
In early 2007, New Hampshire — the site of one of Wake Up's biggest triumphs — came close to banning its three greyhound tracks altogether out of animal cruelty concerns.
Money is only one problem for the dog racing business. The other is image.
Many animal rights activists are quick to mention dog racing and dog fighting in the same breath. And the perception that the sport is followed by a down-at-the-heels crowd doesn't help, either. Jay Sabatucci, the Southwest regional director for The Humane Society of the United States, puts it this way: "Greyhound racing is the poor man's horse racing. It's like the B movie of the racing industry. It's pitiful."
Mike Parmetti, Gulf's Marketing Director, is working on strategies to lure people to the track. Thursday is 50-cent draft beer night. There are Harley-Davidson giveaways and free trips to Las Vegas during the summer. On Fridays, there's an all-you-can-eat crawfish buffet for $9.95. Then, there's something called Dog Chip Bingo, advertised with this teaser: "If your puppy poops or pees in the right position, win a prize!"
During a recent Thursday night, a track employee led an ex-racing greyhound around the crowd while promoting the track's adoption program. The dog was a huge hit with the kids. A little girl hugged the greyhound tightly around the neck while others petted the dog on the head.
"That's what really makes me happy, because a lot of people think these dogs are bred to be machines. They actually make good pets," Ebbs says. "We've adopted 2,000 dogs since we opened. It's something we're real proud of."
But animal activists don't generally join Ebbs in his self-congratulation.
Marnie Reeder, greyhound rescuer, spends most of her time tracking down abandoned greyhounds and finding homes for them. She says that the main problem with the sport isn't track or kennel conditions. It's what happens after a dog's racing career is over. "The dogs get dumped," she says. "It's a mad scramble to match dogs with suitable homes. The breeders don't know the dogs well enough to match them. They know how they'll work at the track, but they don't know how they'll do in a home."
Reeder prefers not to work with adoption groups at tracks to match greyhounds with new homes. "We don't want to enable breeders and track owners. We have all we can handle with street dogs," she says. Reeder urges people who find abandoned greyhounds not to trace them back to the owners. "If they go back to the breeders, that's a death sentence," she says.
Carey Thiel takes this even farther. Thiel is the director of the anti-dog racing organization, Grey2K. More then PETA, more than the Humane Society, Grey2K confronts greyhound breeders and track operators, trying to close down tracks and ban the sport through statewide referendums.
When Thiel posts messages on Greyhound L, the most well-known greyhound listserv, discussion gets heated and Thiel gets flamed. Thiel sees the recent push by greyhound breeders toward adoption as disingenuous public relations.
"Adoption groups are cleaning up the greyhound industry's mess," she says. Her impact has been greatest in the Northeast, where animal rights can be a legitimate political issue. Texas is, of course, different. "I'm not sure what impact the cruelty issue has on the debate in Texas, but it's not like animal welfare is foreign to the state." Thiel thinks greyhound racing is a culturally atavistic sport that's on its way out.
While some Texas politicians have tried to help expand gambling at Texas racetracks, a coalition of conservative Christian groups and animal rights groups have come together to defeat it.
As a lobbyist for the Christian Life Coalition, Suzii Paynter doesn't seem like the kind of person who would have a lot in common with animal rights activists, but on the subject of dog racing, she sounds like she could be speaking for PETA.
"There's been a change in our perception of animals. We don't use pets for work anymore," she says. She cites a "cultural dissonance" between the greyhound industry and the rest of America. She mentions the outrage over Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick's involvement with dog fighting as evidence that "most people won't tolerate cruelty of animals in sports."
The idea that there is some sort of parallel between dog racing and dog fighting infuriates greyhound racers, trainers and breeders. "My dogs get treated better than most people's pets," says Tuddy Dietz, a breeder with a greyhound farm near Seguin.
At Dietz's greyhound farm, there are air-conditioned kennels and runs for puppies. The dogs eat raw meat and grain. They're turned out six times a day and receive constant attention from his two employees.
At the track, the Texas Racing Commission has a staff of vets that oversee the condition of kennels. The state-appointed vets check each dog before the race, making sure it's healthy and drug-free. After the race, the dogs can cool down in a bath. Racing director Ebbs insists that out of 50,000 starts last year at Gulf, vets euthanized "three or four" dogs.
West is a little suspicious about groups like Reeder's. "We all get a little temperamental about the term 'rescue,'" he says. "We feel like we work hard to adopt out these dogs."
One Houston-area breeder, who National Greyhound Association president Gary Guccione said had plans to guarantee a 100 percent adoption rate of his dogs, has backed away from his program. Guccione said that the breeder would be a good person with whom to discuss the positive changes happening in the industry.
The breeder thought otherwise. "Things in the greyhound industry just keep getting worse," he said, "but I've got my whole life invested in it. I've spent almost $50,000 on some of my dogs. They get treated better than people. But talking about it will start a war with the animal rights people and I don't want to go there."
Attacks from the animal rights people get Dennis McKeon hot under the collar. McKeon can talk very eloquently for hours about genetics, phenotypes and greyhound history dating from ancient Egypt. He's slept in crates with dogs to understand what makes them tick. McKeon has retired from training now and devotes a lot of time to researching greyhound bloodlines.
But what really gets him going is the stereotype of greyhound breeders as "dull-witted country bumpkins," as he puts it. "The most disgusting thing about the animal rights movement is the stereotyping of people. It's ideologically driven."
Long-time bettors Mel Cornett and Jack Regan have been coming to Gulf Greyhound since it opened. They've seen the decline in purses firsthand. The pair met as tennis partners years ago and look nothing like the "country bumpkin" stereotype McKeon mentions. Cornett is a well-groomed, nattily dressed petroleum engineer. He wears wire-rim glasses and takes a studied approach to the dogs. Regan, with his gruff New England accent, black eyebrows and gray beard, looks like he could play a decent Captain Ahab on screen.
For these guys, greyhound racing is an intellectual challenge, like a crossword puzzle that might win them some money. They handicap the races themselves and limit their losses to about $60 per night. Like Ebbs, they have fond memories of Gulf's glamour days. "It cost them $40 million to build this place and they didn't even have a license for it at the time," Cornett says. "I'd still rather come here than a casino. Poker is not a sport. Dog racing's a real sport. These dogs are athletes."
In pari-mutuel betting, winnings come from the pool of money bet on a given race. Fewer bettors equals less money. Still, Cornett and Regan stick with the dogs. They've developed sophisticated formulas for handicapping. Regan calls people who bet on their favorite numbers, names or colors "strictly amateurs."
When probed on his system for finding winners, Regan seems perturbed. "You should've done your homework before you came to the track," he says. After a couple of beers, he starts to open up. "You have to look at the grade of race, look at the age of the dog, whether he's going up or down. I look at the dog's times in the last seven races. I don't care about names or colors."
Actually, it's sort of maddening to try to figure out Cornett or Regan's strategy. Cornett says that he likes dogs that get out of the box fast, but then he also likes the closers. Then there's the position of the dog. If the dog takes to the rail, he says, he's got a shorter track to run, but there's the risk that he'll get caught up in a pack. If the dog prefers the outside, there's more room to move, but more track to cover. Cornett is constantly changing his mind on his favorite. He also complicates matters by placing "exotic bets" (bets that involve more than a simple win, place or show) on one winner and a group of others he thinks might place or show. If he wins one combination, he can cash in on a quinella.
In the fifth race, the strategy pays off and Cornett wins a quinella on a "wheel bet." It doesn't pay much — $15 for a $2 bet — but he's happy to end his dry streak for the night. "I'm not a big-time gambler, but I win," he says.
On the first turn of the race, one dog wipes out, and the crowd, including Cornett, groans. The dog's spinout looks like something you might see on NASCAR. But then, unbelievably, the dog jumps up and runs the rest of the race. He finishes only a few seconds behind the pack, still sprinting despite a noticeable limp.
It's hard to find out what, exactly, happened to the dog. Neither the Texas Racing Commission nor the track publishes statistics detailing the names of dogs and the nature of their injuries. Gulf veterinarian Vance Murphy deals with injured dogs, but can only give a rough estimate of how many injuries happen in a year (about 60 is his best guess).
"Most of them happen on the first turn," he says. Dog injuries are a side of racing that no one at the track likes to talk about. The most serious accidents end in euthanasia at the track, although Ebbs insists that is rare. Under Texas law, however, animals are considered property and animal rights advocates say there's nothing to prevent dog owners from putting down unwanted dogs.
Like Ferd West, Tuddy Dietz has raised greyhounds his whole life. Unlike West, though, Dietz is determined to keep on breeding and racing dogs. Dietz runs a greyhound farm outside of Seguin, where he employs two full-time workers to handle his dogs. It's a rough life for Dietz and his employees — mountains of dog poop, ticks and heartworm are just some of the things they have to contend with.
Still, there's money to be made in the greyhound business. Statistics from the Keep Texas Running Commission show that dog racing generates $130 million a year in the state. Gulf runs a $30,000 stakes race each year, and other states, like West Virginia and Florida, pay out much more than Texas tracks. In a good year, a dog breeder might make $100,000. And the overhead is relatively low. "For about $1,500, you can have a decent dog," West says.
So despite all the bad news, Dietz shows up at West's schooling track with dozens of dogs ready to be put to the test on a muggy morning in late July. Clarence West, Ferd's brother, gets into an old truck in the middle of the track and tests out the mechanical lure. A fluffy string of white whirls around the track a few times and Dietz is ready to load his dogs into the box. This proves to be a struggle for some of the greyhounds, who are ready to spring into action before their time. The dogs all have ripples of muscles down their hind legs like Olympic sprinters.
For the first race, Dietz's men have to shove the dogs into the box. They yelp and squirm as they go in, but when the mechanical lure comes around and the door to the box opens, they fly out in a straight line, hell-bound for the white lure.
There are four dogs, but one — a long, muscular brindle dog — leaves the others in the dust. At the end of the race, the other three dogs catch up with the lure and jump on top of one another, trying to latch onto it. Dietz, a soft-spoken man in thick glasses and a cowboy hat, takes notes. Unlike most dogs, greyhounds hunt by sight.
The retired trainer, McKeon, says that "greyhounds can tell the difference between a cat and a rabbit at 150 yards at dusk. They chase after anything. You could put out a bottle of Budweiser and they'd go for it. They were trained to kill fast vermin and they've preserved that natural instinct."
The keenest observer of this schooling race is probably Dietz's seven-year-old granddaughter, Ashlee. She's excited about a dog named Addrick. Dietz agrees with her, saying Addrick has all the right qualities: a straight gait, the right head movement and a lot of heart. "You can tell by the head. If he's got heart, you'll see the head really pumping," Dietz says. He tries to get kids — especially girls — involved in the training of his greyhounds.
"I taught the 4-H horse club for 11 years. And the little girls would always do a lot better with a horse than the boys. Boys want to act tough, carry a snuff can in their pocket and talk smart. Same thing with dogs. Girls take care of dogs with love and affection."
Ashlee already has her own greyhound and she's right about Addrick, who wins his schooling race. As much as Ashlee loves the greyhounds, though, she shakes her head when asked if she'll go into the family business when she grows up.
Parmetti and Ebbs think slot machines — called Video Lottery Terminals at the tracks — might be the saving grace of Texas dog racing. They are convinced that slots will bring the dog tracks back to life without creating the sorts of vices gambling opponents fear. "You can't create gambling problems," Parmetti says. "If you could, we'd find a way to do it and pack this place out."
Some Democrats, like State Sen. Rodney Ellis, have shown a willingness to support gambling because it would increase much-needed tax revenue. Year by year, the issue seems to be gaining traction. Without gambling, some say all the Texas tracks could be out of business in the next decade.
Casino gambling seems to come up every legislative session, but Kenneth Besserman, legislative director for Ellis, says it came closer to passing this year than in previous years. Even though Ellis has supported casinos, he doesn't agree with what the dog track owners would prefer — slot machines at existing tracks only.
If western Louisiana is any indicator, however, full-fledged casino gambling would generate a lot more money than slot machines at the 13 horse and dog tracks around Texas. Besserman says that video slot machines simply don't generate the kind of excitement Texas needs to draw people back from Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
"People are going to come to Texas for VLTs at a dog track in Houston? I don't think that floats many people's boats," he says. If Texas wants to go for gambling, supporters argue, it might as well go whole-hog and build the sort of entertainment palaces that attract Texans to places like Lake Charles and Bossier City.
The West family family raised greyhounds on their farm for decades. The dogs were mainly work dogs that hunted jackrabbits and other pests.
Then, in 1960, one of West's neighbors, Clyde Bond, built a dirt track where locals could bet against each other. At a time when many greyhound breeders used live animals as bait for coursing, the mechanical lure on Bond's track was a humane innovation. Bond put an old pickup truck on blocks in the middle of the track. He attached a cable to the back wheel. He ran the cable around the entire length of the track. By stepping on the accelerator of the truck, the cable would start to move, powering the mechanical lure too fast for the greyhounds to catch.
In the late 1970s, Lady Bird Johnson showed up at Bond's track. West and other greyhound breeders planted a sea of bluebonnets in the middle of the track for her. But things really took off in the 1980s, when hundreds of people gathered. "The excitement in the '80s was that people knew racing would be coming to Texas," West says.
West's wife, Audrey, has made him put most of his dog racing trophies in storage. She says there wasn't room for them anymore, but they also serve as a painful reminder of what they've lost. The dog kennel behind their house now functions as a storage unit, where the couple keeps their power tools and gardening supplies. Their house is a modest, ranch-style place with a well-trimmed yard and plenty of space for a dog to run out back.
At West Motors, West slips in an old VHS tape. Interspersed with highlights of the dog's winning races are fragments of interviews with TV personalities talking to Wake Up's trainer about the famous greyhound. After Wake Up retired, the greyhound became a family pet until he died in 2003.
These days, West spends most of his time on his car dealership, which is thriving in Gonzales and even more so on the Internet. "My main business is the dealership," he says. "If I didn't have that, I'd be starving to death. We couldn't exist in a small town if it wasn't for the Internet. I have to give credit to my sons for having that market in mind."
His two sons, Ferd Jr. and Mark, grew up around the greyhounds but never had their dad's full-blown passion for racing. While father and sons worked at the same dealership, it was easy to differentiate between the two Ferd Wests. "If people called for junior," West Jr. says, "it was for cars. If they called for senior, it was for greyhounds. I grew up with a pooper scooper in my hand."
These days, Ferd West Jr. focuses on selling cars online, through eBay and Auto Trader for the family dealership. "The reason I quit was that I turned 16 and started chasing women," he says. Cars, it seems, impressed the ladies more than the dogs.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- Rational East Texas Man Urges Violence and Tells Cops to "Step the Hell Aside"...
- Texas Horse Racing Will Continue, At Least For Three More Months
- Court Calls Texas Churches Campaigning Against LGBT-Friendly Politicians "Paranoid"