Gate open, they're off!
By MIKE BRASSFIELD, Times Staff Writer
Eight sleek greyhounds leapt from the starting box and whipped down the sandy track, their skinny heads bobbing like pistons as they chased a mechanical bunny.
The bettors rose to their feet.
"We're all suckers. We have nowhere else to go," said John McGovern, 74, who sat in the grandstand Wednesday with a handful of retired Irish police officers, firefighters and transit workers, all of them from the Bronx. "We only go to church once a week. What else can we do?"
Racing resumed Wednesday night at Derby Lane, ending a two-week shutdown after a flulike kennel cough infected hundreds of greyhounds at the track, killing two. Although 50 to 100 dogs are still getting over the illness, dog trainers say the worst is behind them.
That's welcome news for hundreds of Derby Lane regulars, who joke that they've gone through greyhound withdrawal.
McGovern and his buddies meet at Derby Lane five times a week to relax, lose a little money and trade wisecracks.
"We come out whenever we feel like it," said Mike McElligotty, 68.
"Which is most of the time," McGovern added.
"I haven't felt this good in two weeks," McElligotty said.
"And look at all the money you saved," McGovern replied.
Derby Lane shut down its live races on March 24 after the kennel cough infected more than 300 greyhounds, about a fifth of the dogs running at the track this season. Many dogs spend the six-month season at the track kennels, and the infection thrives when dogs are confined in close quarters.
The infection spread to eight other Florida dog tracks, prompting quarantines at each place -- no dogs allowed to enter or leave.
"It was getting pretty bad, and you certainly can't race with sick dogs," said Vey Weaver, the track's vice president and general manager. "But we're glad it's over and happy to be back on track."
This was the second time in the track's 78-year history that it closed for medical reasons. Six greyhounds died from a pneumonia-like illness in 1999, prompting the track to close for 15 days, its longest shutdown since World War II.
During this most recent shutdown, Derby Lane and the 23 dog kennels that operate at the track lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Now the track is resuming its normal schedule, with dog races six nights and three afternoons a week. Wednesday's attendance on a rainy weeknight was 2,268. The races typically draw 1,500 to 1,800 fans on weeknights, and 3,000 to 4,000 on weekends.
Even the greyhounds have been antsy to get back on track.
"The dogs are going crazy, they're so wound up. They love to run so much, and they've been cooped up inside," said Derek Dion, 31, head trainer for the Mitchell Ballard Kennel, where all 60 dogs got sick.
"These dogs are smart," he said. "When you hang a racing muzzle on their cage, they know it's race day."
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