The story of my Father and a greyhound, of how you can make a winner by love not cruelty
| Running Just for Love
The story of a greyhound and the man who dared to ignore tradition.
It's 1940 and young Frank leaned against the rail encircling the track. His brother Leigh stood close by and both brothers looked a picture of concentration as they willed the dog on around the track. Neither approved of the hard training measures often used by trainers, and Frank in particular had experienced on many occasion the hard vice of ridicule and ostracism. "Fatty Fitzgerald" was often used in an endearing way, but it also could be utilised to accentuate put downs. But Frank had learnt to cop it sweet, all that mattered to him was that Puzzle was happy, that he was doing what he wanted to do, and as a side benefit he could reap the reward of being proven right, that a dog will always respond better to love and trust rather than to cruelty and fear.
Frank had done things differently and had treated his dog with the love and respect he believed every animal deserved. Perhaps deserved more than people, and Puzzle was running faster than any other on the field. Frank gritted his teeth and willed the dog on. Run like the wind, run like the wind! A group of five men stood close by, every now and then looking in his direction and then back at the flurry of greyhounds streaking around the track. The final leg was approaching and they knew that if Frank's dog was going to take fright it would very soon. Puzzle had a history of being timid, of shying away from clapping, yelling crowds and the bright lights that shone down on the finishing line. Frank and Leigh were urging the dog on, "c'mon boy.....that's it...c'mon mate". But these men had a look of trepidation on their faces, would Puzzle slow as he ran round that final curve or would he stay ahead.
"Run like the wind, run like the wind! Come on boy. You love this, you want this, run like the wind!" yelled Frank.
A crescendo of yells started to rise from the crowd as Puzzle flew across the track. "Yes, yes, you've bloody won!" yelled Frank, lifting his hands into the air as if he himself were racing across the winning line. "He did it, we've shown them! You bloody beauty!".
Leigh gazed quickly around feeling slight discomfort at his brother's expletives, but he forgave Frank for his verbal indiscretion as he too felt the exhilaration of the moment. Then together, they both raced to collect the dog and as Frank bent to pat Puzzle, the dog leaned up and licked him on the face. Frank wiped the doggy saliva off his cheek with a smile, "You've done it boy, you've shown 'em all what you're really made of". Overhearing what Frank had said, Leigh whispered in his ear, "and you have show them what you are made of too".
For Puzzle, and for Frank, the long journey to become the winner of the Hobart 1940 Handicap race had been a journey of healing for both dog and owner. Each had experienced a difficult past, and each had suffered in their own way. But sheer determination (or "bloody determination" as Frank put it) and a lot of love, had resulted in triumph.
Frank was only 24 years of age and thus far had steadfastly remained within the limits of Tasmania. In fact he rarely went north in the island state and preferred Hobart to any other place he could possibly imagine.
He had had a tough life. But he hadn't gone without, he had always lived in a nice home, and had good food, a good upbringing..........but that is where it ended. At 14 years of age he had been told he had to work in a quarry, that he needed to help pay his way. He didn't mind hard work, in fact he loved the challenge, the sense of mateship that existed at the quarry, and the relaxed attitude of the men which created an atmosphere very different to the tense exactitude at home . Smoko was always a chance to catch up on the latest news, and as the quarry was on the fringe of the town, many of the workers were from homes on large allotments or even a small farm. They would discuss how their hens were doing in the Poultry Shows, how the latest pigeon races were faring, how well their lambs coped with the cool spring weather, and their plans for future litters of border collies and kelpies.
When young Frank was employed at the quarry he was particularly impressed by a man in his 50's. His name was Harold. Somewhat senior for someone working in a quarry, but he had managed to swap the pick and shovel for conveyor belt work and this suited his limitations from a back injury incurred by an accident 30 years ago. Frank didn't know exactly what had happened, all he knew was that some of the men had refused to work one December and with a lack of a supervisor to watch the teams someone had caused a rock fall. One man had died and Harold had injured himself getting a survivor out from under a large boulder. But while this history was testament to the character and strength of this man, what really impressed Frank was the huge menagerie of animals he kept on his small property. Frank loved to visit him on days off. Harold's little kitchen was festooned with Best in Show ribbons, there was a dusty line of trophies sitting along the mantel piece above the little wood stove, and there was often the smell of sweet musty somewhat over matured meat kept in a meat safe just for "me hard working mates" as Harold always called them when referring to his three dogs. One was a female red cloud kelpie called Lady, one was a male border collie cross called Moss who came about when his Sire, a large rotund Labrador had a brief but productive liaison with Harold's other dog, a bitch called Shiner. She had received this name due to having a black patch of fur surrounding one eye, and Harold reckoned it looked like she had received a "shiner" in a fight. "That bloody Labrador was so big I don't know 'ow he didn't break little Shiner's back when 'e was havin' his way wiv her! Me poor little girl, she's bin a good bitch, an' a good mother to them pups she 'ad. She's good on them sheep too. She's won more than a few ribbons fer me!"
One day Frank asked Harold if he had ever been married, but Harold didn't provide a complete answer. He mumbled about a girl who had worked in a local store, and said she had gone to another town with another man. Then he patted Shiner's head as she sat with her nose on his knee and declared that ..."'Shiner 'ere and them like 'er, they're the only family I need".
So Frank worked at the quarry for another 4 years, and the manager acknowledged Frank's ability with numbers by giving him the job of doing the pays. Each Wednesday at 1pm he would stop his other tasks and go to the office where he would work through the columns of numbers showing rates of pay, and hours worked, to come up with what would go into each pay packet. He had also risen in the ranks as far as helping Harold out with taking his dogs to the Sheep Dog Trials, and he went to some pigeon racing meetings as well. It was at one of these meetings that he heard two men discussing a brood of chicks that the mother had started to peck. The chicks had been removed and were in an old cardboard box. The owner of the pigeons had brought them along to the meeting in the hopes that someone would rear them for him, but so far no one would take on the challenge. Frank could overhear the discussion and the lives of the four baby pigeons sounded in jeopardy.
"I reckon they're too young" one of the men was saying. "They're just fluff, no pin feathers even starting to show. I reckon they'll be dead by tomorrow."
Frank went over to the box and put his hand inside. He felt soft pecking on his hand as the babies squeaked and begged for food, and they felt colder than what Frank thought they should be. He cupped his hand over the little pile of baby birds and felt them nestle under his palm. He could imagine that this is what it was like for them when one of the parent birds was sitting on the nest. With that thought in mind, he took his old used handkerchief out of his pocket and pushed it through the slit in the top of the box and them manoeuvred it over the top of the little birds. "That must be better than just sitting there all uncovered and scared", he thought.
He went over to the men with his hands on his hips, almost in a stance of defiance he offered to take on the brood. One of the men grinned and wiped a calloused hand across his nose as if trying to hide his smile. "Alright Frankie mate. They're from a pair of good racers but I don't reckon they'll survive. If you can rear 'em you can have 'em."
With that, Frank rushed over to the box and put it under his arm. He wanted to get those chicks home as soon as possible. To warm them up and give them a feed. His brother Leigh had reared a few birds, he would know what to mix up for them.
Frank had a very disrupted sleep that first night, every time he stirred from sleep he would jump out of bed and make sure the chicks were OK. He kept a box in the kitchen a suitable distance from the wood oven that would be smouldering all night. He sat the box in a cage just to make sure no rats or cats decided to make a snack of the five babies. And they did well, ultimately going out into Leigh's avery and then, once they were fully grown and independent they were moved into the pigeon loft.
It was 1939, a sticky Summer morning and Frank had started the day very early. It was only 8.30am but he had already been up for more than three hours. His brother Leigh was entering some hens in the Poultry Show and was insistent they were clean and spotless before being bundled into their carriers and transported to the competitions. Leigh was proud of his birds especially the Indian Game that had done so well the previous year. The cockerel, which he had name Winston, was a large bird that stood tall and aloof, with strong muscular legs and bright plumage. He had proved a good rooster and fathered healthy progeny, and he was still in his prime. A possible winner yet again, Leigh hoped. Frank was always close to Leigh. His elder brother, Owen, had been like a Father to him, but Leigh was like a true brother, and Frank was protective of his sibling. Leigh had been the butt of jokes and bullies from as far back as school and it had continued on into his adult life. He was different to most of the other men that Frank knew. Leigh was gentle, well spoken, born in Tasmania but he spoke with a precise and resonant accent that made him sound more like an Englishman. Leigh had friends who were poets and artists, people who were creative and demure. He had once had a girlfriend, they had even got engaged, but it became obvious they were simply very good friends, never lovers, and could never be husband and wife. Leigh loved her but not the way she needed. When they went separate ways this seemed to confirm to all and sundry what they all suspected about Leigh. He was different, and sadly unlike other species of animals that Frank had seen and observed, humans could be cruel to other humans who weren't deemed the same as everyone else. When animals are in a mob, they might pick on the weakest or the sickest, but a strong individual no matter how different was accepted and valued as an integral member of the herd or flock. Humans didn't work like that, it didn't matter how well you contributed or how strong you were, if you were different then you were picked on. Frank had decided that human beings were the cruellest animals in the world and Frank couldn't stand back and watch his brother being degraded and so he felt it was his role to be there for him. Frank wasn't a big man but he was strong and well muscled, and he didn't mind attending some of these Poultry Shows with his brother, and after all he was starting to develop a real interest in the bird world.
So on this hot day Frank found himself in the poultry sheds helping Leigh to wipe down Winston's feathers and look around the rest of the competition. As the morning wore on he found time was passing too slowly, and he could see that Leigh was getting along well with a group of pigeon fanciers so he excused himself from the group and headed over to the Domain where he had heard there was some greyhound racing happening that day.
Frank had heard some rumours about the way some of the dogs were treated and the methods of blooding where live bait was supplied to the dog during the week in order to make them keener for the track. He certainly hadn't seen blooding for himself, but it seemed like it was accepted by most of the racing folk that that was how it had to be done. He grimaced at the thought of such a thing, and it certainly troubled him that this could be happening. But he loved working dogs and he wanted to see what greyhound racing was really like.
The humidity had disappeared by 1pm and the track looked dry and brown. But it certainly had been well tended and improvements made to some of the buildings. Greyhound racing must certainly be proving a money spinner he thought. There was a large crowd of punters and here and there were tightly packed groups standing close together as they were laying bets for forthcoming races. Frank didn't have enough cash on him to risk losing any, he didn't like betting anyway as money was too hard to get in the first place. After all, he was there to see dogs race, not to lose or make money. He wanted to see what it was about these dogs that enticed people to paint pictures of them, to have photographs taken and to have all those editorials in the Mercury.
Frank found his way to a metal railing that encircled the track and saw the stewards, each walking a dog stride out onto the track and place each animal into a starting box. On the side of the track, just ahead of the starting line was a piece of fur attached to a pulley which appeared to encircle the track. He had heard that a person used to hand wind the lure and make it race ahead of the dogs, enticing them to run as fast as possible, and that a few years ago it had been upgraded to an electric system.
A tight pack of slender greyhounds bounded from their starting boxes and sped down the track. It only took about 5 seconds before two started to lead and then of the two, one was ahead by a good length. Frank was mesmerised. These dogs seemed to love what they were doing. They must love it, he thought to himself. As they started to come round for the final straight one dog that had been running third seemed to slow down and looked less eager to catch the lure. It then pulled up suddenly as the rest of the dogs raced on ahead. It stood there looking from side to side at the crowd, then started to run again, but without the vigour of before. The others had completed the race and were already being caught by the trainers, while this other one was only now reaching the finish line. Frank watched closely as a large man strode out onto the track and clipped a leash to the dog's neck. He had to tug at it sharply to make the dog walk with him as it looked around with its tail wedged between its back legs. "It's bloody scared!", Frank thought to himself. "It's bloody scared."
Frank wasn't happy, maybe some of the things he had heard about greyhound racing were true after al. He wanted to leave, to head back to Leigh and the chooks, but he also wanted to see this dog, to make sure it was alright. So he followed the track railing around the course till he reached the kennels. He hadn't seen this dog up close but it was the only one in the race that was black and white, he was certain he could work out which dog it was. He made up his mind he would check on the dog and then head back to the show.
"What you doing here?," shouted a man who looked like an official in his grey coat and multiple badges. "You aren't with Clarkey are you?"
Frank had to think quickly or he would be told to move on away from the kennel area. "No Sir, I'm here to do a check." Then before the official could say anything more he stepped through the door of the kennel building and started walking along the dog cages. Looking back over his shoulder Frank could see no sign of the man who questioned him, so it looked like he had got away with sneaking in.
Frank looked into the cages as he walked through the building. It smelt of fresh hay and dogs urine, not that unpleasant really. The first dog was a brindle colour and was standing by a bowl lapping up some water, the second was brown and white with a black patch on its chest. He kept going down one side of the building and then started back up the other so as to inspect all the cages on the other side as well. He was half way along and he came to a cage that had three men standing closely together talking and one of them kept motioning with his head towards the dog. It was the dog that had looked so fearful on the track.
"He's no good. He showed some good race times, I thought he had promise, but he ain't worth the tucker he eats. Do you want him Mick?"
The man who must have been Mick, gave a short laugh and bashed his left boot heel against the straw covered floor. "If he's no good to you, then he's no good to me!"
Frank stood close to the men and looked at the black and white greyhound. It was pacing around the cage, its eyes were large and frightened, and drools of saliva dropped from its mouth as it panted.
The third man leaned against the cage and looked at the dog. "I thought he would be a go'er too. But he bloody well isn't. I reckon you should put a bullet in him. This is the third time he has stopped in his stride, get rid of him. If you don't want to shoot him then I have a mate who is looking for some animals to bate his fighters. He would take the Puzzle off your hands."
On hearing these words Frank couldn't contain himself any longer. He had heard about the dog fighting that took place in back alleys. How a smaller weaker dog was sometimes used in order train another stronger animal to be aggressive. It would mean a shocking life and probably a terrible death. Frank could feel his heart throbbing in his chest in anger. He concentrated on calming his breathing so that he wouldn't sound too anxious. He took a deep breath and stepped up close to the man who owned the Puzzle. "Excuse me Mister. I will take the dog".
The owner, Henry, stiffened and turned quickly. When he saw Frank he gave a subtle almost imperceptible grin, little more than a twitch of one corner of his upper lip. At the same time he caught the eye of the two other men and held their gaze just a bit longer than would usually occur. This was a non-verbal cue for them to stick around and listen in. "I don't know mate. What do you know about dogs. He might be up for sale." Again, catching the eye of the others while emphasizing the words up for sale."He isn't too bad a dog you know."
Frank looked the owner straight in the eye. He was young but not an idiot. He could see that they were treating him like a joke. That they weren't taking him seriously. But he was now worried about the dog and what might happen to it if he walked away from the discussion. So he chewed on his lip and decided to stick to playing whatever game it was and see how things panned out.
"I want to buy him", said Frank, standing with both hands on his hips in a stance he always used when he wanted to look confident. "How much?"
Henry again caught the eye of his racing colleagues and rubbed his chin as if in thought. Frank could see he had a chance to get the dog, but he could also see he was in for a bit of a battle as far as how much it would cost him. He was already thinking about the little bit of money he had saved since leaving the quarry and learning the trade of a Watch Maker, and he was thinking about who else he could turn to if he didn't have quite enough money. Leigh always had something, though he had recently spent up big on a tweed jacket and leather shoes in an attempt to impress a potential employer at an accounting firm. But Frank knew that Leigh would help him as he too was like Frank when it came to having a soft spot for all creatures.
"I want seven pounds. He's worth more than that you know". Henry looked more at his friends rather than at Frank as he said these words. Frank felt that maybe he felt a bit guilty but still wanted to get as big a price as possible.
"That's more than I earn in a week!", said Frank.
"Alright, if that's too much for ya', I will stick to me original plans then." Henry started to turn as if to walk away.
Frank knew what these plans were. He had clearly heard the discussion the men were having when he entered the dog kennels area. He simply couldn't walk away and leave this beautiful animal to a cruel fate. He stepped forward and circled around the owner, stopping square in front of him. "When do you want the money?"
"I want it by Monday night, or the dog goes somewhere else. I will be here at a meeting that starts at 6.30 in the evening. Bring the money between 6 and 6.30 and you can take the dog away".
Frank reached forward and shook Henry's hand. "I will definitely be back, and I will have the money for you." He knew that he had agreed to pay more than a week's wages for a dog that he had no specific plan for. Leigh had some pens that he could use as temporary accommodation but as to where or what he would do from there? Frank simply wanted to save this dog and that's what he was doing. What he would do with the dog once he had it home, he would have to work that out later.
Frank left the greyhound racing track with his mind working flat out. He had 5 pounds in the tin hidden behind the pigeon loft, he needed another 2 pounds, he would have to ask Leigh. He didn't like asking for money from anyone, but he had been there for his brother a number of times and he was certain that Leigh would feel the same way he did about the dog.
The poultry sheds were closing for the night and Leigh was checking the water and feed of his birds before he had to leave. Winston, the Indian Game bird had won a Best of Breed ribbon, and a little silky bantam had also won a second. Leigh was pleased and Frank gave him a congratulatory pat on the back.
"Leigh, I need to have a word with you about something. How about we catch the tram to North Hobart and we have a drink. I want to.....I need to talk with you over a drink".
Leigh could see that Frank looked excited and yet harassed at the same time. He sensed it was important."Yes Frank, let's do that. I can see you want to discuss something and it will probably be better done over a drink". And so Frank and Leigh went to the North Hobart local pub and sat at the bar. Leigh didn't always like the Hobart Public Houses. He felt there was too much swearing and drunkenness for his taste, but he was usually prepared to go with his brother.
By the time they had arrived Frank had already outlined the story about the Puzzle, but he hadn't mentioned the amount of money needed to purchase the animal. It wasn't until each brother had a beer in front of him that Frank then continued about the actual cost of the dog.
"I have five pounds at home already, I need another two. Can you lend it to me Leigh? I will pay it back, a bit each week."
Leigh sat, staring at his glass. He didn't say anything for about 20 seconds and Frank thought that maybe Leigh didn't have the money. Then Leigh half turned on his bar stool so he could better face Frank. "I have something to tell you too brother. Firstly, yes, of course I will give you the money and you can pay me back if or when you win a race, but there is something I have decided to do and you are the first person I have divulged this to".
Frank tensed, he was worried what Leigh was about to say. He knew it was serious as he always referred to Frank as "brother" when Leigh was about to say something momentous. "What's wrong Leigh?".
Leigh rested the side of his hand on the bar mat and gently tapped the side of his glass. "Things have been getting worse with Germany." He paused and looked Frank squarely in the eye in order to assess fully the reaction of his brother to his next statement. "I have joined up Frank, and three days ago I got the order to collect my uniform and report to the Barracks. I don't know yet where I will be going, but I suspect I shall know in the coming week."
Frank just sat there with his lips held tight. He wasn't surprised this had happened. It had to happen. But to have to face up to actually being told by his eldest brother that he was joining up was still a huge shock. He had stood up for Leigh so many times, and Leigh had always been there for him, offering advice on how to dress, and how to be a gentleman to the ladies. But Frank was worried, as this would mean he wouldn't be there for his brother. If Leigh was posted away somewhere Frank wouldn't be there to defend him.
Leigh could see the worried look on Frank's face. He grabbed hold of Frank's shoulder and gave him a loving shove. "Brother, you have always been there for me. You have taken a few punches and given a lot more. But the time has come where I need to stand on my own two feet. I will be alright Frank, I know how to handle myself, and I know how to stand up for myself. You once told me to keep my head low and mingle in with the crowd. Well, that is exactly what I will do."