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Derby Lane newcomers take patient approach

Published Jul. 27, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — Chances are you won't see much of Phil and Heather Marsella at Derby Lane.

Owners of the track's newest kennel, the Port St. Lucie couple is usually together on the highways, hauling greyhounds nationally to race tracks and adoptive families. While one Marsella sleeps, the other drives. They live on cell phones. And their 2006 Ford F-250, which is equipped to transport eight dogs at a time, has logged more than 1 million miles.

"Hauling is our base employment, and the phone never stops ringing," Heather said. "Phil tells people we're on the road 350 days a year. I miss my coffee pot and my three girls (greyhounds) at home."

The Marsellas joined Derby Lane on July 1. They also have a booking at Palm Beach Kennel Club. Wins have been rare at the St. Petersburg track, but Heather says patience is the key.

"We're hoping within a couple of months we'll have our full active list of dogs," she said. "It's been slow because you just can't take a Palm Beach dog and bring it to Derby Lane. You need a powerhouse dog that can run a stretch, finish a race and not tire."

Entering Friday, Marsella was last in Derby Lane's 16-kennel standings. It had nine victories at an average payout of $25.80 for a $2 win ticket. Many of Marsella's 50 dogs compete in lower grades. Of 137 starts, 102 have been at Grade D or M, none at Grade A. The kennel lost its first 23 races before winning with Cross Fire, one of six Grade D victories. Magic Kit Kat scored Marsella's highest-graded victory Thursday at Grade B.

The Marsellas, both 46 and married 24 years, purchased their first racing greyhounds 10 years ago. Their bookings began years later at Sarasota. They have raced at Flagler in Miami, Naples-Fort Myers in Bonita Springs and Sanford-Orlando in Longwood.

The Marsellas were part of the last roster at Tampa Greyhound Track, which ended live racing abruptly in 2007. Their Tampa operation was known as MJG Greyhounds, and it tied for fourth in the win standings among 12 kennels. Tampa was competing year-round against Derby Lane, but canceled racing after only 49 days and 56 performances. The Marsella dogs moved to Flagler, Heather said.

Winning races isn't the only agenda for the Marsellas. They want to educate their three children in the industry. Joe Marsella, 19, assists trainer John Farmer at Derby Lane. At Palm Beach, Michael Marsella, 24, is a trainer and Gabriella Marsella, 17, is a kennel assistant.

"What we're really trying to do is set a business up, one for Michael and one for Joe," Heather said. "But they need to learn more before they can go on their own. Gabriella handles dogs like she's been in the business her whole life."

MORE DOGS: Win leader Venus Espinosa of Patriot kennel goes for his ninth consecutive victory in Race 10 (10:11 p.m.).

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