- - Sunday, March 1, 2020

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — ‘Rusty” was racing, the greyhounds were chasing, but few people were watching the action at the Palm Beach Kennel Club — a sparse crowd. There would be more people at Fidel Castro Night at a Bernie Sanders rally in South Florida than betting on the dogs this Friday night in late February.

But there was a time when the Palm Beach Kennel Club was one of the iconic cultural landmarks of South Florida, drawing thousands of fans to wager on the greyhounds chasing the mechanical stuffed bone named “Rusty” around the track — in earlier days, a replica of a rabbit.

Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio might be on the rail at Palm Beach. Burt Reynolds might be in the stands. Frank Sinatra might be found in the prestigious Paddock Restaurant — in a coat and tie, of course.

“The track was an exciting place to be,” said Patrick Rooney Jr., president of the track. “There could be any number of movie stars or sports celebrities or local politicians that would make at least one stop to the track during racing season. In spring training, we would have Willie Mays or Pete Rose, all kinds of baseball players. Don Shula would come by when he was coaching the Dolphins.”

Yes, that would be Patrick Rooney as in the Pittsburgh Steelers Rooneys. Art Rooney, who had links to the gambling and racing business, and his family bought the track in 1970s and have operated it ever since.

These are the final days of greyhound racing in Florida, the place where it began in the United States. Palm Beach is one of 10 remaining tracks in the state that is due to shut down racing come Dec. 31 after the lengthy fight by animal activists finally resulted in a vote by state residents to end the practice. That will leave seven dog tracks around the country left.

The end was in sight for years for the industry, though, in Florida, with small crowds replaced at tracks by packed poker rooms, as gambling interests changed with a new generation of bettors. Friday night still has a full house at the Palm Beach Kennel Club. It’s just behind dark glass in a poker room.

The lights, though, once shown brightly at Palm Beach.

“During the track’s heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, we ran a limited schedule, only about four or five months,” Rooney said. “So it really created a sense of excitement for those four or five months. There would be 4,000 or 5,000 people here most nights and the Paddock Room, our dining room, was always packed. You had to be dressed up in a jacket and tie and women were in dresses. The food was always top line. The track had a level of glamour.”

It was part of the South Florida culture, featured in the opening of the television show, “Miami Vice,” with the dogs starting out of the box. “People would make trips to the track because that is what Crockett and Tubbs did,” Rooney said. “You went to the beach, you played golf, and at night you went to jai alai or horse racing or the dog track.”

The highlight of the time at Palm Beach may have been six months in 1994, when the world was watching one particular dog make history — Pat C. Rendevous.

Obviously, dogs don’t have the same profile as famous horses. There are no Secretariats or Seabiscuits that are celebrated in films. But “Rhonda,” as she was known among her fans, was the biggest thing in the sport in 1994 when she set a remarkable record of 36 consecutive wins. Her story made headlines across the country and was featured in Sports Illustrated, among other media outlets.

“To illustrate how popular she was, when she was tying the record (at 33) and beating the record, it didn’t happen until June, one of our most notoriously slow times at the track,” Rooney said. “There is not a lot going on in June in South Florida. But she brought 7,000 people a night to the track. For a brief moment in time we transported from a gambling place to an actual sporting event where people came to see what a dog accomplished. It was so awesome to see people come just to watch this dog race. They wanted to see her run.”

Rhonda is memorialized with a star in the Palm Beach Greyhound Walk of Fame — the path leading to the poker room, which will likely soon be all that exists of the once popular track.

“We will keep going,” Rooney said. “We have poker at the track which is very successful. We have simulcast betting which is very successful. We won’t need as much space in the future so we will probably downsize the facility but for next 10 months it is business as usual. We are not treating this as a funeral march to the end. We want to treat it as a celebratory reminiscing and then look forward to seeing what we can be after Dec. 31. There is a sadness, but also what we can do in the future.”

Goodbye Rusty.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan podcast Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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