ST. PETERSBURG — Once Wayne Ward Kennel owner Julia Ward decided it was time to leave Florida, Derby Lane trainer John Graham began to see his 22-year vocation with the operation based in Abilene, Kan., vanish.
Needing to find work in an industry with limited opportunities, he had few career cards. A king and a queen ended his search.
Graham, 50, starts three greyhounds in his final stakes for Wayne Ward in tonight's first round of the St. Petersburg Derby. Ww Lucky Tinker, Ww Site On Tally or Ww's Revamped can give Graham his third Derby title since 2005, but he says beating co-favorites Flying Coal City (McAllister Kennel) and Tmc's Remedy (Filipelli & O'Donnell) may be asking too much.
Asking for a job wasn't.
When Ward announced she was ending a 20-year association with Derby Lane on June 30 at the conclusion of the season, Graham benefited from Filipelli & O'Donnell dissolving on the same date. With John Filipelli starting his own operation, Miami residents Barney and Pauline O'Donnell needed a trainer for their St. Petersburg booking. Graham got the nod.
"Barney is the king and Pauline is the queen of this business," Graham said. "They have done a good job of managing their empire. They race everywhere, have a lot of dogs and do well everywhere."
Ward is pulling her final Florida booking because the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist approved a gambling compact with the Seminole Indian tribe April 20, limiting gambling options for parimutuel sites. A decline in wagering has dented Derby Lane's purse structure, and though the track is supplementing purses, it can't keep pace with other facilities. Ward is dispersing most dogs to casino tracks Bluffs Run in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Wheeling Island in West Virginai.
"I don't blame the Wards as much as I blame the Legislature for giving everything to the Indians," Graham said. "It appears things are going to be tough in Florida for at least five years."
Graham, a St. Petersburg resident, has handled Wayne Ward's dogs at Key West, Miami, West Palm Beach, Tampa and St. Petersburg. Wayne Ward won the kennel title at the Tampa at Derby Lane meet that ended Dec. 30 and is fourth in the current 16-kennel standings.
"I'm real appreciative to the Wards for 22 years and certainly appreciative to the O'Donnells with the new opportunity," he said. "I promised them they would not be sorry (for the hire). My wife (Kathi) summed it up, saying, 'It was like a gift from heaven.' Jobs like this never come up. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Qualifying is tonight and Wednesday for the 660-yard $30,000 Derby and $10,000 Consolation Derby, both June 26. "Flying Coal City and Tmc's Remedy are the two to beat," Graham said.