ST. PETERSBURG — Donald Burk Jr. no longer looks over his shoulder when he enters a greyhound track.
Four decades ago, Burk and a couple of buddies did that at defunct Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere, Mass.
"I was 14 or 15, and we'd sneak into the dog track to go bet," Burk said. "That's how I got hooked (on the sport)."
Burk, 53, owns Derby Lane's newest kennel, an operation that is taking baby steps at what the Boston native calls "one of the most beautiful tracks in the country."
With Garrett, his 26-year-old son, serving as the manager-trainer, Burk is trying to transform what was a leading kennel at Sanford Orlando Kennel Club in Longwood to a contender at Derby Lane. It begins with getting younger.
"The challenge for my kennel particularly is that a lot of my dogs were older, and it's harder for the older dogs to really adjust (to Derby Lane)," Burk said. "It's like trying to teach an old dog new tricks. For us, it's a matter of finding puppies and building from the bottom up. It's a Band-Aid right now until we get young, better dogs."
That process will receive a boost in October at the National Greyhound Association fall meet at Abilene, Kan., where Burk plans to purchase pups and influence owners to put their athletes in his kennel.
Burk Greyhounds ranked third in the 12-kennel standings at Sanford Orlando before moving to Derby Lane on July 1. The kennel was at Longwood for two years. Previously, it was booked for a year at Gulf Greyhound in La Marque, Texas, and at the defunct Valley Greyhound Park for three seasons at Harlingen, Texas. Burk owned a greyhound farm in Chico, Texas, from 1984-2011, breeding and raising dogs for NGA Hall of Fame member Pat Dalton, Billy O'Donnell and others.
Entering Friday, Burk Greyhounds had 12 victories from 371 starts. Its two highest-graded wins came at Grade B, including the kennel's first victory July 10 by Tapstar Bentley. Burk's only multi-win performance came during the Aug. 10 matinee with Kb's Acuna and Tapstar Fredo.
Wonderland, which closed in 2010, set Burk's life in motion. It was where he and his late father, Donald Sr., acquired their first greyhounds; where he learned the business as a kennel helper; and where he met his wife, Joy.
When Sanford Orlando reduced its racing schedule and general manager Mike Newlin informed Burk about the Derby Lane vacancy, the decision to leave central Florida didn't take long.
"It was getting tough to make money with less races and (Derby Lane) was an opportunity that I jumped at," he said. "You want to win right away, but I knew it wouldn't happen. You can't be scared to die if you want to be famous."
More dogs: Budz Crosby (Alderson) clocked a season's best time Wednesday of 37.30 seconds on the 660-yard course.