In the early '30s there lived in California a Roman Catholic priest who had served so well that he finally got on the archbishop's list of those who could never be removed from command of his parish. The archbishop also assigned two or three young priests to release him from the burden of listening to confessions and answering night calls, so that for the first time in his life the old padre had time on his hands. He acquired a couple of greyhounds and began coursing jackrabbits in the vast grassy fields that in those days swept between the counties of Los Angeles and Orange. As a boy in Ireland he had enjoyed coursing hares, and this was a fair substitute, except he missed the big red greyhounds of Connemara.
One day he decided that importing a good specimen of that Irish strain and racing him at dog tracks would, in all probability, bring him welcome revenue. From his meager wage the priest had saved $1,500, and now he blew it all to import a red one from Connemara. When the dog arrived, the priest sent him up to a trainer at Belmont, the only dog track then operating. Belmont was 40 minutes by automobile from San Francisco and the track did a big business, even during those Depression days.
I had a friend named Peterson who lived close to the Belmont dog track. He had a huge lot surrounded by a 10-foot chicken-wire fence. A row of chicken houses were in the rear, all souvenirs of the former owner. Peterson was at the time a minor contractor, his specialty being the removal of dirt, but after the Depression set in, business was very bad with him. When one day a dog trainer proposed that Peterson rent his big lot to corral the trainer's dogs and those he boarded and trained, Peterson was receptive. In order to sweeten the deal he rented the dog trainer his finished basement and put in some sketchy furnishings so that the trainer could live there and look after his dogs. And Peterson even cleaned and disinfected the old chicken houses and bedded them with sawdust so the dogs would have shelter.
Peterson became acquainted with greyhounds but he never became friendly with them, for the greyhound is a cold and indifferent dog. He is often nervous and generally resentful of his brother greyhounds but will not attack them valiantly like other dogs. Peterson gradually began to hate greyhounds.
When the priest's greyhound arrived in Belmont the trainer brought him to Peterson's place. When turned loose in the yard, the dog proved he was Irish by expeditiously thrashing all the other greyhounds in a fine, manly way. Since he had an unpronounceable Gaelic name, he was given an alias—Big Red.
After Big Red had undergone a period of training to limber his leg muscles, he was taken one morning to the local dog track to be given a qualifying speed test and introduced to the mechanical rabbit. One of the rules of dog racing was that an entry must first qualify at minimum speed, for the public must be protected from betting on a dog that can never win.
Big Red failed to qualify. He broke well and in three jumps was leading the field, but as the pack came into the turn, all yelping madly, Big Red seemed to lose interest and dropped back—apparently in disgust at being asked to chase a mechanical rabbit. Six times Big Red was asked to qualify and six times he quit. Finally the trainer wrote the priest that his imported dog was a hopeless failure. The priest immediately went to Belmont and watched his dog try and fail again. He said to the trainer:
"Take him to the local pound and have him mercifully destroyed. His breeding is royal but I'll not sell him as a stud dog. He might propagate failures as great as himself."
The priest, however, owed the trainer a fee for working on the dog. Peterson stepped in and said that if the trainer did not bill His Reverence, but procured from him a formal bill of sale for Big Red, he, Peterson, would remit one month's rent to the trainer. The deal was made and Peterson had saved Big Red from the gas chamber—partly from pity and partly out of a sense of justice, for he did not believe Big Red was a failure. Why should he break so swiftly and always quit on the turn? Why should his enthusiasm ebb so promptly at that point? Besides, Peterson had thought that in the general hullabaloo of a pack of yelping dogs he had detected a note of pain. Could it have come from Big Red?
Peterson took Big Red to San Francisco and had his legs X rayed. The picture showed that the middle toe of the dog's left front foot had been fractured. The fracture was half knit and probably would have knitted fully if Big Red had been immobilized for two months.
The veterinary rebroke the toe and set it properly in a cast. Six weeks later the fracture was healed and Peterson put the dog in training. In another month Peterson asked for a new qualification trial at the Belmont dog track, and with the speed of the mechanical rabbit slowed to the minimum Big Red qualified without extending himself.
Peterson then arranged with his tenant dog trainer to enter the dog and handle him in a race carded for fairly good dogs. Knowing the fans had never heard of Big Red, Peterson figured he would be neglected in the betting and be an outstanding overlay. He hocked his old jalopy to bet on him, and when Big Red romped home and paid 100 to 1 the Depression was over for Peterson. He kept entering the dog in good fields and Big Red kept winning. Big Red still paid good odds, and Peterson bet as much as he dared without breaking the price. Finally Big Red was exposed as a triple-X sleeper, and when Peterson had to take 3 to 2 for his money, the harvest days were over. Peterson, however, had bought two dump trucks at Depression prices with his winnings and had secured a good digging contract. He had no more time to fuss with Big Red and he sold him for $7,500 as a stud dog. Ever since the Peterson family has been happy and prosperous.
Dog tracks have long since been outlawed in California. They had to go when the horse tracks came back, but Portland, Ore. is a dog-track town, and one day you might get a chance to visit the track. If you do and you see a dog colored like an Irish setter, bet on him on the off chance that his male ancestor was from Connemara.