Skip to main content
Original Issue


No harebrained scheme, inventor Owen Smith's mechanical bunny put greyhound racing on the track, helped the Feds nab Al Capone and is one reason the dogs are America's best bet

During the fourth race at the Bonita Springs dog track in Florida not long ago, a big black greyhound named Happy Marty fell going around the first turn. He got up to race on but reversed directions, passing the grandstand again all alone. In the control tower high above the track the lure operator, John Braham, who had seen such things happen before, speeded up the mechanical rabbit as fast as it would go—about 96 mph—to put it far beyond the reach of the seven other dogs in the race.

Then, when the rabbit was coming off the backstretch, Braham cut the power completely and let it coast as it approached the oncoming dog. The mechanical lure is a big contraption about two feet long, a fleecy, white artificial beast made of spring steel covered with the sort of imitation sheepskin used to make the linings of inexpensive winter coats. It has enormous gleaming ruby-red eyes and costs $35 at the factory. It is not designed to fool dogs into thinking it is a real rabbit; rather it is made to look like a rabbit to people watching in the distant grandstand. Happy Marty took one look at the apparition coming toward him, turned tail and headed back the way he should have run in the first place. "If that dog had wheeled to the outside," said Braham, "I would have missed him. But he wheeled to the inside, and the arm holding the rabbit hit him right on the butt."

The other dogs were now coming close so Braham had to speed up the lure once more. Thus Happy Marty and the rabbit scooted together toward the finish line. Braham cut the power again to let the dog go free, and Happy Marty took off with a rocket burst of speed seen only when a dog has been frightened out of its wits by—well, a large rabbit. The greyhound drew away fast, and with a fine finishing burst crossed the wire six lengths in front of the rabbit, which in turn was a scant four rabbit-lengths ahead of the lead dog of the rest of the pack. "No, Happy Marty wasn't hurt," said Braham. "Just bruised a little. But the NO RACE sign was flashed on the tote board immediately."

At a large track such as Flagler in Miami a canceled race can be rescheduled for later, but how do you make up the loss of an incalculable amount of goodwill from the bettors? Consequently everything possible is done to make sure that nothing goes wrong with the rabbit. That synthetic animal now operates so efficiently that it is rare if there is more than one breakdown a season at each of the 40 tracks in the United States, perhaps 40 cancellations out of a total of approximately 40,000 races. Still, accidents do happen, and the folklore of lure operators is filled with tales of living creatures, including turtles, real rabbits and cats—especially cats—that wander onto tracks and suddenly find themselves, instead of the mechanical rabbit, the designated quarry of a pack of speeding greyhounds.

The folklore also includes some mechanical failures, such as the time at the Daytona Beach greyhound track when the power went off and the lure hung motionless in midair. Most of the dogs, after a moment of confusion, raced on—with no apparent desire to have anything to do with an airborne rabbit. At another track an inexperienced dog took off in the wrong direction until it encountered that monstrous red-eyed rabbit coming straight toward it at high speed. Trying to get away, the dog was knocked down by the arm holding the rabbit, which is purposely suspended high over the track so it will not hit a dog across the legs. The surprised greyhound bounded up, cleared a fence, ran down through a ditch to an exit ramp, evaded a dozen men, scooted under the turnstiles, streaked across a parking lot and disappeared into a nearby woods.

There is something disquieting about a mechanical rabbit if you see one eyeball to eyeball. When modern American greyhound racing with mechanical lures began in 1919 every effort was made to duplicate real rabbits in order to fool the dogs into thinking they were after the genuine thing. For many years they were stuffed, padded, sewed and otherwise costumed until they were almost indistinguishable from a live animal. But when it was learned that greyhounds did not care at all how the lures looked, things went the opposite way. At White City in London one night the fog was so heavy the dogs could not see the rabbit, so an enterprising track operator fastened a red light to the mechanical creature's tail. The dogs raced after the light as though they believed rabbits had always been so equipped by nature.

These days the mechanical rabbit suggests some vanished species, a predatory monster straight out of a cave drawing, but it is also completely modern, an altogether artificial species of Lepus. It is an ideal robot: no brains, no blood, no guts, glassy-eyed, unfeeling, indifferent to nervous dogs and nervous bettors. And it fulfills the purpose for which it was created so effectively that last year American bettors alone wagered some $875 million to watch packs of dogs chase futilely after it.

Perhaps a vague dislike for the mechanical rabbit accounts for the extreme obscurity that hides its inventor. Nobody in the history of any sport brought about a change comparable to that worked by the inventor of the device, and yet no inventor in sports history is so little known. The few references to him in standard works do not even agree on his name or his birthplace. He was Oliver P. Smith, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, or Oliver B. Smith, in The World Book. Depending on whom you choose to believe, he was from Oklahoma, Arkansas or California. The Britannica says that Smith first tested his invention in Tucson in 1909. Another authority says Smith first developed the contraption in Houston in 1912, while others say it happened on various dates in Salt Lake City, Tulsa or Emeryville, Calif.

Aside from a few, often contradictory, recollections in greyhound journals, there is little in print concerning Smith. There is one notable exception—he is mentioned in some biographies of Al Capone. They are passing mentions for the most part, the sense of which is that Smith's rabbit was indirectly responsible for Capone's downfall. That is essentially true. Capone blasted his way past hundreds of rival mobsters, bribed public officials, intimidated witnesses and got away with murder, only to be felled by a mechanical bunny.

Smith was no gangster and he had nothing to do with the mobsters who moved into greyhound racing when it became profitable. His true name was Owen Patrick Smith (1869-1927) and he was the son of a Memphis funeral director. A good athlete, he was ingenious and adept at building things but had no engineering training of any kind. Until his mid-20s Smith worked in various Midwestern towns at a variety of jobs, including barbering. By 1905 he was the secretary of the Chamber of Commerce at Hot Springs, S. Dak., a small railroad stop in a region of ghost towns and worked-out mines near the Wyoming and Nebraska borders.

Although he had never seen greyhounds run, Smith was called upon to organize a coursing meet to promote Hot Springs' generally ignored attractions. Around the turn of the century, coursing was a popular Sunday afternoon entertainment in the Midwest, a farm country adaptation of old English greyhound coursing. Two owners matched their dogs in each event. The park was a quarter-mile expanse of fenced-in prairie, and a handler, known as the slipper, held the two dogs on a leash at one end of it. A jackrabbit was released some distance in front of them, and when the rabbit had built up a lead of about 200 feet the leash was slipped and the dogs took off after it.

"When the dogs got it, the rabbit screamed like a baby," says Murray Kemp, who is now the president and general manager of the Multnomah Kennel Club track in Portland, Ore. and was once Owen Smith's bookkeeper, chauffeur and confidential assistant. "It really sounds quite a bit like a child's scream." A ruddy-cheeked individual with spiky white hair, Kemp has spent half a century around dog tracks and is an expert on crowd psychology. He is highly regarded in the business because he once drew more than 30,000 spectators to his track, the biggest crowd in the history of American greyhound racing. Kemp says Smith began to think of some way to eliminate the cruelty in coursing, the feature of the sport that tended to hold the crowds down.

Searching for information on how to run the meet, Smith met a bar owner named George Sawyer. A large jovial farm boy, Sawyer was described as a man who "liked the thrill of wagering, liked money and knew how to get it and how to keep it." He was a natural promoter, with a large store of jokes which he told with a stutter. History has failed to preserve any of these hilarious anecdotes, but to judge from the way Sawyer persuaded otherwise prudent small-town citizens to invest in dog tracks, he must have practically convulsed them with laughter first. In any event, under Sawyer's guidance, Smith organized the coursing meet and it drew a large crowd.

This caused Smith to begin thinking of a series of meets, an organized national greyhound racing circuit with regularly scheduled events like major league baseball. Sawyer drew back from the idea and returned to California, where he operated a bar and nightclub and, later on, a boxing arena. Meanwhile, Smith went from one coursing meet to another, trying to drum up support for his greyhound racing league, but he could not find any takers.

By 1907 Smith was at Salt Lake City, experimenting with dragging a dummy rabbit behind a motorcycle. His attempts to convince greyhound owners, a skeptical breed at best, that their dogs would chase a fake rabbit as enthusiastically as they chased real rabbits were not entirely successful. What he did not realize was that greyhound owners did not want to learn anything of the sort; their reaction was akin to that of a lover who is given proof that his sweetheart is false to him and who is consequently angry at the person supplying the information. The owners seemed to feel Smith had publicly exposed a flaw in their beloved animals, something they might have suspected but which they did not admit to themselves.

Sawyer, who was in the chips now, agreed to give Smith some financial backing, and in 1910 the inventor secured a patent for the Inanimate Hare Conveyor, the first of some 40 patents he took out in connection with greyhound racing. Then, in Houston, Smith met and married Hannah Kummings, one of 12 children of an Indiana farmer. About that same time Smith made the acquaintance of Tom Keen, a young self-taught electrical mechanic. With Keen's assistance Smith built a small straight track for his mechanical rabbit. The track was buried in a ditch. An overhead arm, projecting through a slot, carried the rabbit down the course. The experiment failed. "As I understand it, water seeped into the ditch and short-circuited the equipment," says Kemp.

"We were church-mouse poor," says Edward Smith, the inventor's son, "but somehow my father would always find food. He was marvelous with his hands. He invented a window-locking device, but he was 50 years ahead of his time on that one. When we lived in New Orleans he invented a lid-locking garbage can. He sold the patent for $100 to get some food in the house. The man who bought it made a lot of money, but he was very good about it. My father loved cigars, and this man would often hand my father a 50¢ cigar, which was quite a good one in those days, all wrapped up in a $100 bill."

Encouraged by such unexpected generosity, Smith again set out to buttonhole greyhound owners. But with his neatly inconspicuous dress, his quiet air, the thin mustache that made him look like a riverboat gambler and his shortage of funds, he suggested a confidence man rather than an inventor. He would have had a hard time selling U.S. Treasury notes, let alone stock in a patented rabbit.

It was not until 1919, or 14 years after his great idea first came to him, that Smith at last had a chance to make a full-scale test of his device. George Sawyer's boxing arena in Oakland was being torn down, and Sawyer was willing to move the lumber to property he owned in Emeryville. There it was used to build a grandstand for a dog track. Sawyer and Smith organized the Blue Star Amusement Company, secured the backing of a few Oakland businessmen and planned an expenditure of some $10,000.

Sawyer was now the owner of vine-yards, which in those early days of Prohibition was a good or a bad thing, depending on how one regarded the law. The dog track meant far less to him than it did to Smith. Costs mounted to more than $40,000. "Right after the war it was hard to get equipment," says Frank R. Anderson, Sawyer's nephew who was later president of the Miami Beach Kennel Club. "Rails, for example, to carry the motor that drew the rabbit. We had to use different-sized rails, some eight-pound rails, some 13-pound. The mechanism was a huge thing. It weighed 1,600 pounds—1,600 pounds of machinery to carry a one-pound rabbit. It jumped the rails."

When it was at last ready to operate, there was another crisis: the greyhound owners refused to cooperate. "They said the mechanical rabbit would spoil their dogs," Anderson says. "They said, 'These dogs are valuable, worth as much as $25 or $30.' It makes you laugh to think of that now." But enough owners went along to permit the track to open in 1919 with some 500 spectators on hand. "The rabbit jumped the track often," said Anderson. "Since the dogs had no muzzles in those days, they'd tear it all to hell."

Horrified, the owners said the dogs would never chase again after learning how they had been deceived. Smith explained that the greyhound is born to run, that its pleasure in life is to get out and run and that it will chase anything that moves away from it.

The issue, at Emeryville anyway, was soon enough rendered moot because betting was not allowed, and the meager admissions could not pay off the $40,000 debt. After a few weeks the partners closed the track and moved to Tulsa where betting was unofficially permitted. Smith himself would have nothing to do with wagering because he was still dreaming of greyhound racing as a great mass entertainment. He was also concerned about charges of fixed races by disgruntled owners and disappointed bettors. "He was always trying to prevent accusations of skulduggery," says his son Edward. "Things like rubber bands around a dog's toes, pebbles or cinders between the toes, the dogs being watered just before a race and, of course, doping. My father instituted many of the precautions to dog racing that are now standard in horse racing as well—and horse racing was wide open in those days. I understand the receiving barn, for instance, grew out of his idea of the receiving kennel where the dogs were kept before a race. The starting gate evolved from the starting boxes used in dog races. There were no precedents for such things in those days, and he had to work them out by himself as he went along."

The Tulsa meet lasted from mid-October to Thanksgiving 1920, then Sawyer and Smith hurried to East St. Louis, Ill., where they quickly built a $100,000 track, largely financed by local businessmen. For the first time in his life Smith emerged as a public figure. He was now 52 years old, and the East St. Louis Daily Journal described him as a hospitable person. He personally welcomed visitors to the track before it opened and tirelessly explained the workings of his "electrical rabbit, which was invented to do away with the actual killing of rabbits."

Opening day in East St. Louis was Oct. 12, 1921 with perfect weather, Holton's Band playing and 4,000 paying customers on hand. Until the track closed on Thanksgiving, the average daily attendance was 2,000. Unfortunately, that was not enough. Shortly thereafter the track went bankrupt. The local businessmen were stuck for $100,000 in losses but Smith and Sawyer had long since sold their interests and departed for Miami.

Al Capone's downfall began when Smith met Marty Hyland, a commission merchant in the produce business in St. Louis. Then 43, Hyland had once sold vegetables from a handcart, and in searching for status symbols to go with his new wealth he had imported some expensive greyhounds from England. Through his interest in dogs he met Smith and eventually joined Sawyer to back him in the building of a track in an area of Florida called Humbuggus, later known as Hialeah.

Among Hyland's associates was a 27-year-old lawyer named Edward O'Hare, or Artful Eddie. O'Hare subsequently became famous in two ways—for being part of Capone's crowd and for fathering Edward Henry O'Hare, the World War II Naval hero for whom the world's busiest airport is named. Handsome and cultivated and an excellent boxer, Artful Eddie began to serve as the lawyer for the track builders in patent infringement suits.

By 1925 Smith was dashing around the country installing lures as though he feared Hyland's money might go out of style. From Hialeah Smith hustled to Erlanger, Ky., across from Cincinnati. Then, back to Florida and on to New Orleans. Later that year Hialeah introduced night racing, the innovation, along with the mechanized lure, that really made the sport. Says Edward Smith: "The success was found in night racing, in not trying to compete with the horses. Running at night appealed to a working-class audience."

The night racing at Hialeah also led to contacts with some distinctively non-working people in Palm Beach, who in turn were prominent in starting greyhound racing in England. This proved to be a tremendous success, although of almost no benefit to Smith. The first English track opened in Manchester in July 1926, and within two years there were 68 tracks operating or under construction throughout the British Isles. However, with his characteristic carelessness about his patents—and his reluctance to sail on a ship for fear of being drowned—Smith virtually gave away his British patent rights.

Perhaps he was too possessed by his hope of a great chain of American tracks to care much about what was happening. He took charge of constructing new ones in Milwaukee and Butte, Mont, and the $150,000 Madison Kennel Club near East St. Louis. Dog racing was so profitable that Hyland just gave his commission produce business away to two of his employees. And, alas for Capone, Hyland also induced Artful Eddie O'Hare to try his hand at the dog track business.

Smith had always insisted on a strict regulation of each race, doing so against increasingly impossible odds. As John Kobler wrote in his biography of Capone, "Nothing was easier than to rig a pari-mutuel race. Given eight entrants, for example, overfeeding seven of them by a couple of pounds of meat or running them a mile before the race would guarantee victory to the eighth dog."

These impossible odds came not from the workings of Smith's rabbit but from the new people in the business, notably Capone and any number of other hoodlums, big-time and two-bit alike. Bugs Moran and Adam Heyer (one of the hoods gunned down in the St. Valentine's Day massacre) had large dog track interests and so did almost every mob hanger-on.

In an expansive moment in Havana Capone once revealed to Cuban police that O'Hare was managing tracks for Johnny Patton, Greasy Thumb Jake Guzik, Frank Nitti and Al and his brother Ralph. But then O'Hare never made any secret of his business association with Capone, even if he always kept his social life apart from the mob.

In 1929 Frank Wilson, a top Treasury agent, was assigned to collect evidence of Capone's income tax evasions. Wilson made no progress in Chicago—no one there dared testify against Capone—but a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, John Rogers, put him in touch with O'Hare. After a week of brooding, O'Hare decided to provide Wilson with the material he needed. His motives were mixed. He considered himself a legitimate dog track operator increasingly drained by Capone; he believed he was going to be bumped off; and he wanted his son to win an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy.

Wilson reported that O'Hare's information was the single most important factor in the conviction of Capone. Typical of these leads was the case of Lou Shumway. He had been Capone's bookkeeper at his Cicero gambling headquarters. Searching for Shumway, Wilson found him at the most likely place—a Miami dog track. He was given the choice of informing on Capone's income or being publicly served with a subpoena. In the latter case Shumway stood a good chance of being killed to prevent him from testifying, so he directed Wilson to evidence of Capone's unreported income. In all, Wilson accumulated records to prove an income of $1,038,656 that Capone had not reported. It was very little by Al's standards but enough to convict him, put him in jail for 11 years and cost him a fine of $50,000. Thus did Owen Smith's mechanical rabbit bring down Public Enemy No. 1.

Before all this had transpired, Smith had died at the age of 58. "He was a very healthy man," his son Edward recalls. "He had the flu for three days and then passed away in his sleep. I never knew what happened." Hyland died two years later in 1929 after an operation for appendicitis and gallstones. These tragedies left O'Hare in a very advantageous position. "Eddie had practically no money at the time," Mrs. Hyland explained later, "but he was an exceptionally hard worker. He didn't drink, and he didn't smoke. When Marty died Eddie took over the race business."

O'Hare soon had a mansion in a Chicago suburb, a suite of rooms in the Illinois Athletic Club, an apartment in the clubhouse at a dog track and, perhaps most important, an inconspicuous basement hideout in downtown Chicago. As the date for Capone's release approached in 1939 O'Hare made some prudent new decisions. He took out $96,000 worth of life insurance and he announced he was retiring from the dog racing business. Eight days before Capone left Alcatraz, O'Hare was being driven down Ogden Avenue in Chicago when a shotgun blast from a passing car hit him in the head, killing him instantly.

The murder left George Sawyer and Tom Keen as the only survivors from the earliest period of greyhound racing. Sawyer died peacefully in 1947 at the age of 72 but Keen's fate was more typical. A portly, quiet, self-contained individual, Keen had no known enemies. He led a dual existence: according to some newspaper accounts he was a gambler, but he also operated a factory near San Mateo, Calif. where he manufactured a compact racetrack totalizer for dog races. Early in 1952 this usually imperturbable genius displayed unusual restlessness. He withdrew $40,000 from his personal savings account, took a $13,000 advance from his firm, borrowed $65,000 from Howie Quinn, a St. Louis gambler who owned stock in dog tracks, and took a loan of $35,000 more from the Multnomah track in which he was an investor. On the morning of Feb. 5 Keen walked out of his house, got into his Cadillac and stepped on the starter. The ensuing blast blew out a wall of the garage, smashed a little machine shop where he worked for a hobby, demolished the automobile and blew what remained of his body through the back seat.

These days there is an antiseptic calm around dog tracks. In the tower at Bonita Springs where John Braham works his remote control of the rabbit an array of desks faces the windows overlooking the track. Seated at them are the presiding judge, the associate judge, the racing secretary, the assistant racing secretary, a representative of the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering and a chart writer. In adjoining quarters are the cameraman to record photo finishes, a television camera operator and the announcer. The atmosphere is friendly but watchful, something like the mood encountered when you are searched before boarding a plane.

The device used to control the speed of the rabbit is enclosed in a glass case where no one can reach it except the lure operator. It looks like the control arm used by the motorman of an old-fashioned trolley car. This is because it is the control formerly used on a trolley. Nothing that has since been developed is as suitable for running a mechanical rabbit as these obsolete streetcar mechanisms, and the one at the Bonita Springs grey-hound track is said to be 80 years old.

After the dogs are placed in the starting boxes there is a long pause for dramatic effect, and the presiding judge says quietly, "O.K., run 'em, John." Braham pushes the streetcar lever across 15 copper segments of the rheostat as far to the right as it will go. The rabbit flashes into motion beyond the first turn. At full power the rabbit whips around the second turn and into the backstretch, its high clearance off the racing surface suggesting a bird rather than a mammal. Before coming to the final turn Braham cuts off the power entirely and the rabbit slows down as it coasts past the starting boxes at the head of the stretch.

The doors open, the dogs dash onto the track and Braham ups the power to about half speed to keep the rabbit 40 feet in front of the racers. If the lure is too far ahead, the dogs lose sight of the rabbit and get confused.

Braham works the control constantly during the race, moving the lever back and forth to keep the rabbit just in front of the leading dogs. In the backstretch he puts the power on and the rabbit takes a long lead. Coming into the stretch he cuts the power down and the dogs almost catch the rabbit. As the lure moves past the grandstand he keeps it only 20 feet in front of the leaders. It is an art, a rare and specialized one—Braham once had three consecutive dead heats.

Braham's work is not over when the dogs cross the finish line, since the greyhounds do not know the race is over. Stopping them was once a major problem. In England it was a practice to toss the skin of a real hare onto the track so the dogs would be distracted by it and remain in one place long enough for the handlers to round them up. In America a curtain once was drawn across the track beyond the first turn to stop the dogs. At some tracks a second curtain was drawn behind them. Now, after passing the finish the rabbit is pushed up to full speed. It rounds the first turn and folds into an escape hatch on the rail. Simultaneously, lights appear in a glassed-in box nearby. Inside two more artificial rabbits bounce up and down, backward and forward, while a whistling mechanism gives off frightened, squealing sounds. "The greyhounds put on the brakes immediately, and their attention is attracted by the lifelike rabbits in the glass box," says The Heart of Greyhound Racing.

That is easy to believe. It is a scene Franz Kafka would have loved, one in which he would have found some remote parallel to the fate of modern man. The whole enterprise relies on dogs speeding forever after something they cannot possibly catch and which is not even what they think it is; their prey is kept just out of reach by some remote agency they cannot see and whose motives they could not imagine.

"I only work about 440 seconds a night," said John Braham, stepping out of the control booth and mopping his brow. The operators of greyhound tracks these days are so intent on living down the scandals of the past that there is an almost alarming candor in their offices. There is a friendly insistence on displaying the innumerable safeguards they take to prevent dishonesty, protection against hazards one could not imagine except for the demonstration of how they have been overcome. The scandals have been lived down. Nine states now have legalized greyhound racing; three new tracks, two in New Hampshire and one in Mobile have opened this year; and the Greyhound Hall of Fame, presenting a more attractive side of the sport's history than does a biography of Al Capone, was recently started in Abilene, Kans. Everywhere in the business one hears that greyhound racing now ranks seventh among spectator sports in the U.S. In Florida the pari-mutuel handle and revenue at the 17 greyhound tracks are greater than those of thoroughbred and harness races and jai alai combined.

Ironically, the modern era of dog racing, with its honesty and discipline, its shiny new tracks and plastic-eyed mechanical rabbits, still retains some of the simple freshness and country flavor of the old coursing days. This is particularly the case in afternoon races at a place like Bonita Springs, where elderly patrons doze in the sunlight, watching the herons over the trees beyond the track, and rouse themselves to walk leisurely to the windows (kept open past post time to accommodate the slowest bettor) if they see a dog they like. It can even be that way at a big track such as the one in Miami Beach, which adjoins an enormous enclave of senior citizens. There sprightly oldsters exchange racing tips with comely 60-year-old girls. It is the old days, charming and quietly exciting, and it is kept going by rabbits that are never caught and never scream in pain.





During races, modern mechanical rabbits with their red plastic stares are controlled with an antique rheostat like the one at Florida's Bonita Springs.