ST. PETERSBURG — Win or lose, Robert Lambert wasn't going to miss it — the race within the races at Derby Lane.
The owner of Red Oak Racing had been told by greyhound enthusiasts of the prestige of winning a kennel championship at the 88-year-old track. But Lambert's kennel never could seem to catch powerhouse Patriot, the operation going for its third consecutive title, a feat last attained by Ryan Farms in 1999-2001.
On the final week of the Derby Lane six-month meet that ended June 30, Lambert, 64, stayed in St. Petersburg, cheered his dogs, and watched the spirited kennel race unfold.
The week began with Red Oak trailing Patriot by four wins. It ended with Red Oak in front by two, giving Lambert, a resident of Tallassee, Ala., a title at every track he has had a booking.
"I always heard everybody talking about winning a kennel championship at Derby Lane … what a big deal it is, and it is a big deal," Lambert said. "We were so close, and you never know if you're ever going to get that close again, so you need to close it out and finish. I was just so proud of Alex (Hall, Red Oak kennel manager-trainer) and the dogs."
Red Oak trailed Patriot most of the meet. At the end of January, Red Oak was 22 wins behind, and 11 down with two weeks remaining. Twelve pups that Hall received in May helped Red Oak down the stretch.
"I told Robert these puppies we're breaking in will determine whether we win this kennel championship or not," said Hall, 20, a former Patriot employee who won his first kennel crown. "Sure enough, it really did."
Red Oak had never won more than five races in a performance since coming to Derby Lane in September 2010 from VictoryLand in Shorter, Ala. But it won six on the June 25 card to spark a decisive 16-win week. Red Oak finished with 308 victories from 1,914 starts; Patriot had 306 wins from 2,330 races.
"It was a phenomenon in my eyes," Hall said. "I said to Amanda (Cardinal), my girlfriend, 'It's not a sprint, it's a marathon.' "
Depth was the key for Red Oak, which didn't have any dog in the top 10 in wins.
"It's really nice to have the caliber of dogs that it takes to compete and get enough wins, especially since we didn't have as many starts as the other kennel we were battling with," Lambert said. "We just lived off a good kennel of average dogs that stepped up to the plate."
Red Oak, the leading kennel at the current meet, is expected to remain strong with dogs from Kansas suppliers Vince Berland, Plum Creek Kennels and Julia Ward Veal.
MORE DERBY LANE: Tapstar Bentley won a Grade B sprint Wednesday to give Burk Greyhounds its first victory since arriving July 1 from Sanford Orlando. … Venus Espinosa, Patriot's two-time defending meet wins leader, moved within one of his 70th career victory Tuesday.