This story was originally published Oct. 26, 2007.
ST. PETERSBURG — Because it is the first race, Sandi Hornak will bet the No. 1 dog. Sandi doesn’t know the dog’s name and doesn’t care. She’s 67. She always bets the No. 1 in the first race. The No. 1 could have three legs and she would bet him to win, place and show.
Sandi’s got out her little blue notebook, held together with tape. She records all her important stuff there — the numbers she bet, the races, amounts won.
She’s got her ticket. Got her regular seat by the column on the third floor. Three afternoons a week, this is where she lives.
Derby Lane, with its blend of smells. A little bit doctor’s office, a little bit barroom. Freshly printed programs. Pencils. Cigarettes. Hot dogs. Draft beer. The dog track is like a bus terminal with connections to all kinds of exotic places. A mezzanine level between the mundane and the beyond.
The rabbit comes around and the track is quiet. Then comes the swarm of blinding confusion and, inside it, the streak of fawn. No. 1 has broken third in a field of eight.
Sandi’s dark eyes widen. She clasps her fingers.
She whispers, "Come on."
Derby Lane, a landmark as recognizable as City Hall or the airport, is rapidly becoming a symbol of St. Petersburg’s past. In an era of declining revenues, it is shedding its identity, reinventing itself, to survive.
Competition has changed the nature of dog racing. In August, Tampa Greyhound Track shut down live dog racing for good. Profits on live racing had dropped 70 percent since 2004, when the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino opened 10 miles down the road. All that remains in Tampa is a shell, simulcast and poker.
Derby Lane is one of the few tracks in the state still making money off of live dog racing.
Now the Seminoles are asking the state for Las Vegas-style games like blackjack, baccarat and roulette. If that happens, says Derby Lane spokeswoman Vera Filipelli, "It will totally crush us and put parimutuels out of business in this state."
The grandstand at Derby Lane, once teeming with bettors in full voice, is all but empty. Sandi and her husband, John, 72, are today’s rail birds, who never go near the rail. They watch the greyhounds run outside from the air-conditioned comfort of the third-floor simulcast screens.
They attend only matinees and won’t go broke with what they bet. Sandi bets the same numbers always, a conflation of her Social Security number, old street addresses and phone numbers. Her tattered notebook says she hasn’t lost more than $22 in an outing since January 2004. Her best day came Aug. 20, up $73.
To Sandi and John, the track is a ritual, a Sunday crossword puzzle.
When the track opened as the St. Petersburg Kennel Club in 1925, betting wasn’t yet legal. The race was entertainment enough. Monkeys in sequined pants clung to the dogs like furry jockeys, fell off, and got back on.
In its heyday from World War II to the early 1960s, the era of neon and cars with fins, dog racing in Florida was entirely adult, even vaguely forbidden. At Derby Lane, you could see baseball players and the occasional movie star.
n the 1970s, the dog track was like a traveling circus, each track coming alive in seasonal rotations with Sarasota and Tampa.
"You had to get here before 6 or you couldn’t get a seat," says Mattie Iacovelly, 70, a track regular since 1981. "You could get into the balcony but you had to pay."
The big letters that spelled out D-E-R-B-Y L-A-N-E started the buzz from the parking lot.
The smelly, stale dog track was littered with cigarette butts. Overturned plastic cups of beer dampened the pages of the dog programs that newly arriving bettors might fish from the trash, because they knew you could get to Derby Lane in Race 3 and find a fresh program from somebody who had already lost what they came there with. At Derby Lane, it has always been okay to throw your losing tickets to the ground.
In the ‘70s, dogs with names like Big Ziggy, And Then Some and Four Point strode down the track to be introduced in their numbered jackets under the lights. People bothered to get up close then. Those dogs seemed like celebrities.
That was a world before the Lotto and scratch-off tickets. Before professional sports, MGM Studios and junkets to Biloxi, Miss. A world connected with two-lane roads and cheap gas.
It was naughty and sexy, and it was the only game in town.
There is still action and excitement at the track, but it has less and less to do with dogs. Now it is on the third floor, where two rows of simulcast screens allow bettors to take their pick among a dozen dog, horse and harness tracks from Miami to New York. Derby Lane added the screens in the early 1990s. The third floor is like a mini-library for gamblers, many sitting at desks mounted with small televisions.
Poker tables fill a cavernous area like a college cafeteria. Young people like poker: No waiting between races, no handicapping. The track knocked out a restaurant to make room for it. But poker is insular. It’s nothing like the oval track outside, with the sky for a ceiling.
In this room, there is no wheel, no axis, no hub.
There is no shouting. Noises die on the carpet.
On the second and third floors, scores of mostly elderly men stare at television screens, quiet as chess players.
Fran Williamson, who does marketing for the track, watches over the bettors, some of whom she has known for decades. She knows when they are sick, when they are traveling. They are a loosely knit tribe held together by habit.
She watches them age. "You see them for a long time," Williamson says. "Then you don’t see them."
Sandi and John are in their seats on the back row. Next to them is 86-year-old Jerome "Shorty" Silverman. He had a heart attack six weeks ago.
"Where the hell is my red pen?" Shorty asks.
Sandi, watching the dogs outside on the television screen, does not yell when the No. 1 dog - her dog - emerges from a tumultuous first turn and gradually widens his lead.
"He’s going to win it," she says. "Unless that 7 . . ."
Coming around the final turn and into the stretch, the 7 dog closes hard.
Not in time.
The No. 1 dog flashes under the wire. The win, place and show prices flash on the odds board.
"Thirteen dollars," Sandi says. She records the figure in her notebook, and turns the page.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]