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MONDO CANINE

If you don't watch where you walk--well, you know. Any time 400 dog lovers and their pets get together in one place, the footing can get hazardous.

But that's not the only thing. Confused Labrador retrievers sometimes leap over the rail and scamper up the backstretch in the wrong direction. Irish wolfhounds that outweigh most compact cars knock over trash barrels. Little dachshunds and Chihuahuas let their minds wander and sniff each other in unmentionable places when they should be racing for the finish line. And then there's the barking. The assorted pitches and cadences of the collective barking is fairly unbelievable, not to speak of the volume.

"Just when you think you've seen it all..." shouts track employee Chris Lee amid the happy chaos.

On Sunday they ran the Seventh Annual Hound Dawg Derby out at Mile High Kennel Club, and Walter Mitty would have loved it. Count 'em. Sixty races down the front stretch, featuring dogs of every description running in every direction. Forget those baseball fantasy camps and weekend tennis clinics. If you're a red-blooded Canine-American and you want to show your stuff somewhere besides the back yard or in Washington Park, then the Derby is the place for you.

Just one thing: No actual greyhounds allowed. That would be like letting Andres Galarraga hit cleanup for a co-ed softball team. No pit bulls either. No aggressive dogs. If the occasional basset hound wants to lick a finish-line judge on the hand, okay. But no ringers and no bullies. No actual betting, either. The purses consist of assorted rawhide bones, water dishes and squeaky toys. The $5 entry fees go to charity.

All of that was fine with Cathy Goldstein and Mike McNierney, who brought their Chow mix, Santana, and their Siberian husky, Tate, to the races on Sunday. Like Rod Bernstine styling on the sidelines, Santana wore an orange-and-blue Broncos cap ("He's a big Broncos fan," Cathy allowed) and ran a game second in race number seventeen. "Maybe next year," his mistress said. We didn't see Tate's race, but Goldstein was relieved Tate was not in the same heat with Santana. "He'd probably just bite her in the rear end."

Tate will have to show better manners next June, when Goldstein and McNierney, both 24, get married. On that day, he--Tate, that is--will wear a top hat, and Santana will exchange her Broncos cap for a wedding veil.

If there were any sharp-eyed handicappers in Sunday's crowd, they probably spotted Fritz the beagle right off the bat. After all, this little veteran had won a race in each of the last three Hound Dawg Derbies and in the real world would have gone off as the 4-5 chalk in the fourth race. True to form, he won again, going away.

Proud owner Doug Brott was smiling ear to ear, but then, Brott knows about competitive juices. Used to breed and race greyhounds in South Dakota and up at Cloverleaf. Now Fritz the beagle's his star pupil. And the rules don't say a thing about two-legged professionals. "I've never had a dog I've felt so close to," Brott said, blue ribbon in hand. Or one that races so consistently, you'd suspect.

While an unidentified Irish setter and a plump-legged bulldog went tear-assing into the upper turn, oblivious to local rule and order, Jeff and Kacie Dugger of Littleton were soothing their charge, a six-pound, foot-long miniature fox terrier named Little Man. They were counting on their first-time starter's fear of other dogs, cats (and, most likely, mice) to get him to the wire in an under-ten-pound race, but the field looked tough. If you weighed six pounds, how would you like to go against dogs named Brutus, Winston and Pretty Boy Floyd?

After taking in an impromptu sideshow--Beasley the karate dog, Pippi Longstocking the dancing spaniel, etc.--we thought we spotted something amiss. A rookie racer named Maxie, owner Larry Curtiss claimed, was a shepherd/collie/whatever mix, and she had the uncertain shape and nondescript shag to support that. But when this specimen threw a profile, wasn't that a distant hint of greyhound along her long, noble snout?

"I don't know," Curtiss said with a little grin. "Her mother had seven dads one night, so who can say?" Suffice it to say that Maxie got off the line like a top-fuel dragster and scorched straight to the wire, almost knocking her waiting owner down.

Arjo Penn and Princess Sally would have had trouble with her, much less Fritz the beagle.

The day was not so successful for some. Nakita, a three-foot-tall, 95-pound Harlequin Great Dane you could spot looming over the crowd from far off--even without a Lafitt Pincay Jr. in the saddle--loped home a lazy fourth in her race for giants. Barney the Dalmatian, a two-time previous Derby winner, lost his concentration when a bird crossed the track and had to settle for a dead heat with Spooner in the sixteenth.

And then there was Bentley, a Labrador mix with a clearly poetic turn of mind. In the tenth race, he trotted from his handler's grasp at the start, zigzagged the racing strip at a walk as if in pursuit of butterflies, and meandered home fully 50 or 60 or 100 lengths behind the other racers. Still, owner Kim French threw her arms around Bentley's neck when the long trip was finally over.

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