Publish date:

Big daddy of dogdom

Winner of 36 of 42 races in one year and a record $128,397 in purses, a wondrous greyhound named Downing is retiring to become the sport's only syndicated stud

In the pasture behind the White Shadows Kennels, four Australian emus share a few acres with a pair of South American rheas. They are there to add panache, a quality woefully lacking in most kennels. Rheas and emus are built along the same lines as ostriches, with balding heads and nubbins for wings, and they lay large, hard eggs. Willis Lawson, a retired circus concessionaire and co-owner of White Shadows Kennels, collects and sells the eggs to artists, who paint and sell them as art objects.

In another pasture, adding still more panache, is a pygmy stallion, smaller in height than the greyhounds that White Shadows Kennels breeds and trains as its main business. The pygmy stallion is bred to other miniature horses, and their offspring roam the grounds diminutively, where they are admired by the children and short people of Sarasota, Fla.

There's more. In the driveway, there are some 50 mallards. When Jim Frey, the other owner of White Shadows Kennels, arrives in the morning, the ducks waddle around him, quacking foolishly for the eggplant that Lawson feeds them daily. They sound like crabby old women. "Eggplant! Eggplant!" Frey, who has kept greyhounds for pets and for sport since he was six, knows nothing about mallards, nor about the breeding of emus or pygmy stallions. On the other hand, Willis Lawson knows nothing about the breeding of greyhounds. It makes for an excellent partnership.

Nowhere in this menagerie are there live hares for the young greyhounds to devour while training, a practice the SPCA is not wild about. This humane touch is another of the kennel's oddities. Frey drags a raccoon skin around his training track to get the young greyhounds to chase the mechanical rabbit. This, plus a dog's natural affinity for chasing things, is incentive enough.

During the morning one of the mallards quacks loudly at a delivery truck bringing horsemeat for the dogs. The duck is hoping for eggplant; instead, it is run over by the truck. It is time to get the ducks out of the driveway. "Bring out Handy," Lawson says.

Handy is asleep on the floor of the kennel office. Frey opens the door and calls to him. Handy looks up alertly, and then stretches, arching his back like a bow. He is big as greyhounds go, about 80 pounds, most of the weight being spread through his chest and back. Greyhounds tend to look emaciated on the racetrack—where they are viewed from a distance—but Handy is a powerful dog. Frey calls him "the big dog" when he is not speaking to him directly, much as a fight trainer refers to his boxer as "the champ," if he is the champ.

Handy stands erect and his posture is perfect. His eyes are the color of good mustard, and no white shows around the irises. Frey can tell a lot by a dog's eyes. Greyhounds are coursing dogs, which means they hunt by sight and not smell, and there is a quality in a good greyhound's eyes that indicates intelligence. Handy's coat is what greyhound people call red brindle. A horseman would call it dun-colored, and a city boy might describe it as "rat," but neither rats nor horses have the lovely black marbling through their coats that is common in greyhounds and which is called brindle. Red brindle is a beautiful color.

Handy will not go outside until Frey goes first. The ducks are quacking their way toward the door. "All right, Handyman, I'm leaving," Frey says. He is a tall, lean, 43-year-old Texan with a pleasant manner. Handy likes him a great deal. Now the greyhound trots out ahead of Frey, sending the ducks in the driveway into a scramble for safety—once they are sure he is not an eggplant. They tumble over one another and don't stop until they are a quarter of a mile away, in the pasture next to the emus and rheas. "Handy's terrific at getting the ducks out of the driveway," Frey says proudly.

Handy's registered name is Downing. The man who raised him nicknamed him Handyman because as a pup he was always getting in the way, always handy just when you didn't want him. Today, in addition to being excellent at chasing mallards out of the driveway with great panache, Downing is the most valuable sporting dog in the world. He is being syndicated for $150,000.

No greyhound in history has ever been syndicated, but no greyhound in history ever had a year like the one Downing had in 1977, at two his only full year of racing. Downing raced 42 times and finished out of the money only once. He had 36 wins, including five consecutive wins in stakes races, and collected a record $124,471 in purses, bringing his career total to $128,397. Most greyhounds proceed from their maiden race through the D, C, B and A class levels, being required to win a race in one level before advancing to the next. Downing won his maiden and D class races so convincingly—by a total of 17½ lengths—that Frey entered him in the Hollywood World Classic in Miami, a stakes race open to any owner willing to put up the entry fee. "Everyone said that only an idiot would throw a pup to the wolves like that. It was unheard-of," Frey says. But no one mentioned this to Downing, and he won seven out of eight heats on his way to the finals. Once there, he sprinted to a 5½-length win over the 5/16ths-of-a-mile course and earned $30,000.

The big dog later won the Hollywood Futurity Stakes on the same track, and the day Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing, Downing took his third major stakes race in a row: the Irish-American Stakes at Biscayne. At the time his paycheck there, $37,500, equaled the richest purse in the history of greyhound racing.

It had taken him five months to build an international reputation. In June, Downing was challenged to a $7,500 match race against New England's top dog, Rooster Cogburn, at Wonderland Park near Boston, the Rooster's home track. Downing beat that so-called "Wonder Dog" by eight lengths in their first race, and by one length in the second. In August, Downing was invited to a match race against G.P.'s Sarah, said to be the top dog in South Dakota, on her home track in Black Hills. Downing was booked into an air-conditioned motel room to escape the heat, and he responded by shattering the track record by .6 of a second, leaving old Sarah eating 11 lengths of dust. The Black Hills track set attendance and pari-mutuel handle records that day, which was the norm wherever Downing appeared.

Downing won his fourth stakes race at Wonderland Park in the Battle of the Ages Stakes. It was there that a mystery figure nicknamed Ten Grand Teddy wagered $10,000 on Downing to show, and three times he collected before vanishing into the crowd. But the poor fellow resurfaced once too often this August at Biscayne. In a race in which Downing finished fourth, a dog named Blazing Red paid $13 to win, $6.60 to place and $95.80 to show.

Downing closed 1977 with his fifth stakes-race win, the prestigious American Derby, which was run over ‚Öúths of a mile in Taunton, Mass. It was the first time Downing had ever raced that distance, and in doing so he set another track record, winning by 11 lengths. Of all Downing's races, Frey thinks the American Derby was his best.

This spring, when Trainer Roland Alves was asked to compare his undefeated dog, King Rhody, to Downing, Alves said, "King Rhody is a good dog and possibly a great one. But I saw Downing break the track record at Taunton last fall in a race in which he didn't even get a good start. Downing is something you see once in a lifetime."

At the end of the year, Downing was what The Greyhound Review called the "laughingstock winner" of the Rural Rube Award as the top sprinter of 1977, the somewhat scrambled syntax meaning that he won laughing.

Then came the disabling injury. In a routine training session in late November, Downing injured the ligaments of the tarsal bone in his right hind leg. The dog was rested over the winter, then worked back into shape by two of Frey's daughters, who took Downing along on five-mile jogs while conditioning themselves for high school track. By August, Downing was ready to defend the Irish-American Stakes. He made it to the finals, but reinjured his leg doing it. Frey and Trainer Don Cuddy decided to run the dog anyway, and Downing limped home last. Cuddy broke into tears as Downing was taken from the track for the last time, and that night Frey announced the big dog's retirement.

No one is crying over Downing now, except possibly Ten Grand Teddy, and certainly no tears are being shed on behalf of Frey. He and Downing are constant companions as Frey oversees the handling of his 200 other greyhounds and waits for the syndication papers to be signed. That is being handled by Ray (Tiny) Dupree, a 380-pound Denver restaurateur who has played the puppies, as they say, for 32 of his 49 years and by his own estimate makes between $40,000 and $60,000 annually at it. Dupree owned Downing's mother, alluringly named Hooker's Flower, and it was his idea to make Downing the first syndicated greyhound ("He was first at everything else"). He owns one of 10 shares in the dog. Frey also has kept a share, and the others are being sold for $15,000 each. Most of the shares will be purchased by breeders.

Dupree estimates that a Downing puppy out of a proven bitch will bring as much as $1,000 at first, and since each Downing owner is allotted 10 breedings a year—litters average eight pups—the shareholders could easily get their money back the first year. Further, science has only recently developed a technique for freezing and storing canine semen. The National Greyhound Association has not banned artificial insemination in the breeding of registered greyhounds, as The Jockey Club, the ruling body in thoroughbred racing, has done, but it is studying the subject. Says Dupree, "If these techniques are approved and Downing proves himself, the dog will literally be worth millions."

All of which seems lost on Downing as he enjoys his last few weeks in Florida. Once the syndication comes through, Downing will be sent to a breeding kennel in Kansas City, because of its central location. Until then, Frey says, it is the "life of Riley." Downing leaps into his owner's van, where he is used to riding in carpeted splendor, and clambers over two large volumes of his own clippings on the seat. "Come down, Handy, into the back," Frey says. "You're going to have to live like a dog for 10 whole minutes."

Downing complies tolerantly. His regal manner, after all, is directly descended from the Egypt of the Pharaohs, who used greyhounds to hunt gazelles. Now that's panache.


Downing acts as puppy-sitter while waiting to become a patriarch. For comic relief, he chases ducks.