Greyhound Handicapping: It's Not All Genetic

Eb Netr

July 25th, 2013

In the late 1970's, I lived on the border between Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I was about halfway between the newly opened Lincoln Dog Track, a former horse track, and Taunton Greyhound Park. There was some great greyhound racing in those days and some legendary greyhounds. Lincoln and Taunton were on the circuit for top dogs, so I got to see some of the best.

The one that impressed me the most and will stay in my memory forever was Downing.I saw him run in the 1977 American Derby at Taunton. It was the first time he'd run a route and no one was sure if he could do it, never mind win it.

I knew, like most handicappers knew, that Downing was a "sprint to the front and lead all the way" style runner, like his father, Big Whizzer. I assumed, like most handicappers, that he needed the lead to win. When he stumbled getting out of the box and almost stood on his head, there was a collective groan from the crowd, which had made him the heavy favorite.

I figured it was over and several people around me tore up their tickets in agreement with me. I held on to mine though. I never tear up tickets until the results are final. It's a little superstition I have and it's saved my bacon more than once.

This time, somehow, when it looked like all was lost and a wall of dogs rose up in front of Downing, circumstances suddenly changed when a small opening appeared, only for a short time, but long enough for him to leap forward, burst through it into the 2 path, and take the lead before they hit the first turn. The crowd went wild and we were all on our feet, cheering him on.

He lengthened his lead and it looked like there was no way any of the other dogs could catch him. They didn't. Right before the wire, when I was sure that another dog's nose would poke in front of Downing's nose, he found another gear and shot across the line, setting a track record as he did. The crowd went wild and several of the ticket tearers dropped to their hands and knees and started turning over tickets, looking for the winners they had thrown away.

That race taught me a lot. One, don't ever count out a dog that has something special going for it. Downing had won his maiden by 19 lengths. Three days later, he won his first race in D by 12 lengths. Then he went on to win the Hollywood World Classic without even having a race in Grade C. That's like your ten year old kid pitching for the Red Sox after pitching a couple of winning Little League games.

Even super dogs like Downing lose races, but not many. Betting against them is a good way to lose a lot of money. I think it's worth the price of a bet just to watch them run. I know I'll never forget what he looked like crossing that finish line that day. I've seen a lot of greyhounds since then, some of the best. But I hardly remember what color they are or how they looked on the track. Downing was a red brindle, 80 pound male who made running look like flying and winning look easy.

Another thing I learned from that race is that I can't just assume that a dog will have the same habits as its sire or dam. Breeding is important in greyhound handicapping, but once a dog has run a few races, it's what the dog has done, himself or herself, that counts, not what its sire or dam did. Use their characteristics as a guide. For instance, if the sire was primarily a sprinter, expect that its puppies will do better at sprints than routes.

But it's not written in stone. Big Whizzer was a solid sprinter and Downing did very well in sprints. Until he ran a route and blew the doors off the other dogs and set a track record doing it. If a dog is as outstanding as Downing was, I think it's safe to back them in any race their trainer thinks they belong in. Jim Frey had faith in Downing when he was a 2 year old winner of a Grade M and Grade D race. If he hadn't taken a shot on a longshot, the course of greyhound racing history might have been much different.