LIFE IN THE FAST LANE
On race day, it is always the same. Aaron Harrison hangs Unruly Thomas's muzzle over his crate, where he can see it, and talks soothingly to his charge in a voice dripping the rhythms of Muskogee, Oklahoma. At these signs, Thomas begins to get excited. And when Harrison shorts his dinner bowl--a cut-down ration of six or eight ounces of ground beef instead of the usual two and a half pounds--Unruly Thomas knows.
Knows it's time to go to work again. Time to go out and blow away the field by ten or twelve or fourteen lengths. Time to run his heart out and--though he may not know this part--to court greatness. When they bring him up to the weigh-in, he's usually so excited they have trouble getting him to stand on the scales. So Harrison talks to him some more, calms him down. By the time he gets to the post parade, he's composed and ready--73 pounds of sleek, jet-black greyhound tuned up to make history.
Herbie and Karen Legg are draining their coffee cups in the clubhouse restaurant when the talk gets around to emotion. "In the beginning, you don't wanna get too excited about a pup," Herbie says carefully, and Karen silently nods her assent. "For a while, you don't know what you've got. It's just a gift. It's still hard for us to believe it right now."
It's hard for anyone to believe. Because what Herbie and Karen Legg have is likely the fastest greyhound in America. In 25 career races since breaking in last summer, Unruly Thomas has been beaten exactly once. Fact is, the son of My Unruly Dan out of Rattles rarely leaves any doubt about his intentions. The record shows that only three other dogs have even gotten their noses in front of his at the start, and the race comments about him read like some kid genius's report card: "Never in doubt"; "Box to wire"; "Convincing"; "Far superior"; "Never looked back"; "Snap break, held firm"; "Dominated."
You could throw "incredible" and "world beater" in there, and no one out at the Mile High Kennel Club would dispute you. Neither would the powers that be at dog tracks in Texas, Arkansas and Alabama: When Mile High racing director Steve Rose called around proposing a series of home-and-away match races pitting Thomas against the best sprinters from Birmingham, Southland, Wonderland and a couple of other places, no one would take him up. The word is out across the land: Don't doubt Thomas...
On the final day of 1995, for instance, the Legg Kennel's star broke the Colorado record of eleven straight wins, set back in 1952 by a Pueblo greyhound named World Airways, matched by MX Titan three years ago and equaled twice by Thomas in 1995. Last week he added one more first to his string, stretching it to thirteen. Now not even Thomas's owners dare predict where it will all end. "Let's hope he stays healthy," Herbie Legg says warily. "Let's not count any chickens before they're hatched," adds trainer Harrison.
Still, not bad for a puppy who won't have his second birthday party until April. Not bad, either, for Colorado racing fans.
This bedeviled, sometimes sour bunch is roughly divided into two camps--devotees of thoroughbred horse racing, some of whom would rather get a liver transplant without anesthetic than watch a dog race; and the longtime greyhound players who haven't missed a Tuesday matinee at the Big Store since Eisenhower left the White House. For the most part, the two groups don't drink from the same cup. But when financially troubled Arapahoe Park failed again last fall, the clock started ticking for the horsey set. Under Colorado law, satellite wagering (aka off-track betting) from such thoroughbred glamour spots as Santa Anita, Belmont Park and Gulfstream is tied to the existence of a local racing meet. With Arapahoe's demise, the whole thing is about to evaporate. By this April, dog racing will once again be the only game in town--at least the only four-legged game--and frustrated horseplayers may once more be hunting up a new outlet for their enthusiasms.
Unruly Thomas couldn't hurt.
Racing greyhounds, no matter how talented and brave, don't command the same kind of attention that great horses like Secretariat and Cigar do. When was the last time you saw a dog race on ESPN? And the day before Thomas broke the record at Mile High, the Denver Post devoted two column inches to the prospect. But out at the track and in the betting parlors, even some of the most single-minded horseplayers in Denver have been taking their noses out of The Daily Racing Form long enough to watch Unruly Thomas spring from the box, blast down to the turn and annihilate the field. The confirmed dog people, meanwhile, know they're in the presence of greatness.
Unruly Thomas is a star, and come spring, he could be the only one the local pari-mutuel crowd has to gaze at.
The Leggs have given little thought to that. Their concern is keeping their bullet in one piece until his next start, and the start after that. The hardest-working animals in show business, greyhounds race twice a week to stay sharp and fit, and it is a dark irony of the game that the fastest, hardest-trying of them are the ones most likely to get hurt. Thomas's mother, Rattles, was what Legg deems "a good speedy bitch" until she injured a stopper bone behind her front ankle and had to be retired in her first year of racing. His father, the multiple-stakes winner My Unruly Dan, had a fine career but died suddenly soon after Unruly Thomas made his racing debut last August 31.
Mile High's $20,000 Winter Sprint Championship looms ahead on February 3, then qualifying for Florida's Hollywood Classic, which pays $90,000 to the winner--one of dog racing's biggest purses. But Unruly Thomas's connections know that their star, injury-free until now, could at any time break a hock or drop a muscle or crack an ankle or fall prey to some other malady.
"The fastest ones rarely run long," Legg says. "And Thomas runs awfully hard." So while people out at Mile High speculate about this extraordinary racer winning a hundred times in his career, maybe more, the Leggs and trainer Harrison are delighted every time he comes back sound from one of his all-out sprints. They won't even consider running him in a distance race--the sheer force of the effort might be too much for him.
For now, life in the fast lane continues apace. In the four races he ran between November 25 and December 5, Thomas defeated the dogs that finished second to him by a combined 46 lengths. Even when the interval is closer, as it was in his two-and-a-half-length win over a game Wrocky Apache the day he set the new Colorado record, this astonishing runner inspires the confidence of Green Bay playing host to San Jose State, or Alysheba going against the Budweiser Clydesdales.
Thomas's one loss came on November 6, when he broke second from the number-one box and was outfinished by a driving Oshkosh Waldo. In the past thirteen races, though, no one's come close, and owner Legg feels post position and level of competition are no worries at this point.
"There ain't never been one that wins 'em all," he says. "But any dog that goes to the front like he does won't have too much trouble--anywhere."
Trainer Harrison just shakes his head. "I been around some pretty good ones," he says. "But nothing like this. It all hasn't soaked in yet."
Maybe it will soak in on February 3. Or down in Florida. Or when Unruly Thomas wins a couple of match races against the very best--if somebody will consent to step on the track with him. Until then, the Legg camp continues to marvel at the way their twenty-month-old pup goes on and on.
"Guess he's just young," Herbie Legg says. "Maybe he doesn't know what it's like to have a bad day yet.
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