Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Last Dog Days of December

A couple of weeks ago - the Saturday before Christmas, to be exact - the Phoenix Greyhound Park opened its doors to the public for the last time. It's been an institution in Phoenix for about 40 years, and they built a huge new building about 20 years ago, around the time I moved to Phoenix.

The first time I went there, it was a new building with huge glass windows facing the track, packed full of people. It was huge - almost overwhelming. The parking lot was packed. People were dressed to the nines, and they willingly paid a fortune for valet parking so they didn't have to walk across the parking lot in their high heels. There was an upstairs area with a fancy restaurant and clubhouse. It cost extra to go up there. There was a less-fancy downstairs area, with grandstand-style seating and a few tables with less-fancy food service, but it was all new and nice no matter where you were. And there was an outside seating area for the adventurous. Betting windows were open everywhere you looked. Each race was an event, announced with great fanfare - and music, too! People excitedly studied the racing programs, discussed their picks with each other, stood in line to place their bets, and then kicked back with their beer or other drink to laugh with their friends and then watch the race. Some went outside to stand along the fence and cheer for "their" dog.

Fast forward 10 years. Gambling had been legalized on Native American reservations across the country, and the casinos had taken a chunk of the gambling business from the Phoenix Greyhound Park. They closed off a portion of the PGP building, so that you could sit only in half of the downstairs area. There were fewer betting windows open. Half of the parking lot had been fenced off to use for "Park-n-Swap" on weekend days. Still, the place was hopping on weekend nights; valet parking was still more convenient, although certainly not necessary. Parties were held there. People still enjoyed going to the races as an "event."

Another 10 years later, and the place was practically deserted. The entire downstairs area was closed. It seemed somewhat dark and desolate. You could still go upstairs or outside. Very few betting windows were available with live agents - although they opened several "self-serve" windows with automated betting machines to make up for it. The restaurant still served food, although I think only on weekend nights and for limited hours, and there was a small snack bar upstairs. Most of the parking lot was not only fenced off, but also featured permanent "stalls" for the weekend Park-n-Swap vendors. Valet parking may still have been an option, but you certainly didn't need it. It was easy to get a parking place near the door.

Somewhere along the way, they legalized off-track betting in Arizona. This did two things: It allowed people to bet on races at the Phoenix Greyhound Park from other locations, and allowed people to bet on races at other locations from the Phoenix Greyhound Park. PGP added huge banks of televisions inside, showing greyhound races from all across the country. This was convenient for the "hard-core" gamblers, allowing them to bet on multiple races at once both at the track itself and at bars or other locations. But for the casual racetrack attendee, it made the on-site races seem less like an event and more like a slot machine experience. The atmosphere was subdued; the hard-core gamblers don't cheer for their dogs, or sit around talking and laughing. They just study their programs and place their bets. Pick a track, pick a race, pick a dog, hope for the best.

We didn't go to the races often. I've been there maybe 10 times in 20 years. But I have good memories of those times - we had a lot of fun with a lot of friends there - and it was sad watching PGP's decline. When we went one day last year, it just didn't seem like much fun anymore. Too few people were laughing or talking or cheering or celebrating. It was too desolate.

December 19 was the last night PGP was open for business. They still had some races, with off-track betting, through the end of December, but since I don't do off-track betting, December 19 was PGP's last night, for me.

We attended on December 19. It was more crowded than I had seen it in years. I guess lots of people, like us, wanted to see it one last time before it closed. They still had the entire downstairs closed off, but the upstairs was hopping, and outside it was crowded, too. There was a buzz and excitement in the air that I hadn't seen in years. People laughed and talked and cheered for their dogs and celebrated when they won.

We bet on three races - picked a dog to "show" each time, and won each time, for a grand total of $6.10 in profit. Not enough to make us rich, but gambling is always more fun when you win, right?

I also entered a "name that tune" contest and correctly identified the song and band ("Obladi Oblada" by the Beatles) after three notes, winning a PGP golf shirt.

So, to the PGP owners, thanks for the winning evening, thanks for the fun, thanks for the memories....


SkylersDad said...

The greyhound track and horse track that we used to have around here both closed quite awhile ago. Pretty sad really.

Tova Darling said...

It's sad when something that's been an institution in your city closes. But congrats on your big $6.10 win! :)

Also, I'm not dead!! Thanks for missing me! :)