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Race to the finish

Wonderland regulars dwindle as greyhound track nears end

By Steven Rosenberg
Globe Staff / February 14, 2010

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The entrance fee says $2, but no one here remembers the last time they sold tickets. Walk into the dimly lit Wonderland clubhouse, and it has the feel of a coffee klatch at a local senior center. Here, day after day, around 200 old-timers schmooze about dogs and races that only they remember, lifting them with a buzz that recalls the good old days when the betting parlor was wall to wall with familiar faces who dreamed of a big cash-out.

From 1935 until last September, greyhounds raced around an outdoor track here, chasing a mechanical rabbit named Swifty. But in 2008, Massachusetts residents voted to end dog racing in the state by the end of 2009. The Legislature allowed dog tracks like Wonderland to offer betting on simulcast races until July 31, 2010.

While state legislators are preparing to submit a bill that would legalize gambling casinos and allow slot machines at racetracks, Wonderland officials are looking toward Suffolk Downs as the area’s future gambling hub. Wonderland president Dick Dalton doesn’t rule out the idea of slots at Wonderland, but says slots at two tracks just a couple of miles apart doesn’t make sense.

Wonderland and Suffolk Downs have a joint venture agreement to build a casino a Suffolk Downs. While prospective casino owners would have to submit competitive bids to the state, Governor Deval Patrick has recommended building a casino in the Boston area.

Meanwhile, Wonderland workers are gearing up for the day the park goes dark. The copper railing that carried Swifty around the track was cut up and sold for scrap. Brass banis ters from the 300-seat Wonderland Dining Room are also set for the scrap yard, and the track plans to auction thousands of seats and other memorabilia once it closes.

Before casinos opened in Connecticut, the 35-acre Wonderland was the mother ship of gambling in New England. Even during the middle of the Depression, 5,000 patrons would line the track’s apron each night to root their dogs to the finish line. Some greyhounds, like Rural Rube - who won 19 races in 1939 - were treated as celebrities. That year, the dog attended a dinner in his honor at a Boston hotel where 1,500 fans paid for the right to sit in the same room.

For decades, the track averaged 8,000 patrons on weeknights and 14,000 on weekend nights. Traffic jams along Route 1A were legendary, and for premier events - such as the Wonderland Derby and the Grady Memorial Sprint - cars would be backed up for miles into Chelsea and Lynn. The good times continued in the 1980s, when the track grossed more than $1 million on four separate nights. Attendance and handle fell dramatically in 1992 after Foxwoods opened its casino in Mashantucket, Conn.

These days, the outdoor track lies unused, the tote board is partially covered with plywood, and Swifty is under wraps in the administration office. In the shuttered grandstand, thousands of seats have been undisturbed for more than 15 years. Puddles from the leaky roof sit in front of stations where parimutuel clerks handled millions of bets.

The track opens at noon and people arrive alone and grab a seat at a cubicle that’s fitted with a television. Sammy Cain usually is one of the first to arrive and often stays until close to midnight. Cain, 57, first came to the track more than 40 years ago and served as its announcer for more than 30 years. He still introduces himself as the voice of Wonderland. On this weekday, he marks up a program featuring dogs from Wheeling Island Racetrack in West Virginia. He looks up, smiles when he sees a familiar face, and returns to the dog program.

“I’m a dog person and I still enjoy gambling,’’ said Cain, who called his last race at the track on Sept. 13. Cain, of Chelsea, has spent most of his life at the track. His eyes grow bright and his spirits lift when he discusses some of Wonderland’s greatest dogs, such as Downing, Malka, and Rooster Cogburn. If the track closes in July, he figures he’ll drive up to the Seabrook Greyhound Park in New Hampshire, which still offers simulcasts.

“It breaks my heart because it was a thriving industry that’s in a lot of trouble,’’ Cain said. “The older people are dying off and there’s no one to replace them. It’s going to be sad when Wonderland closes because it’s a way of life, you know?’’

Behind Cain, Frank Eon stares at the 30 TVs that line the small betting area. Twenty years ago, there were at least 300 parimutuel clerks to handle all of the bets, but today there are only three. Eon, who is 63 and retired, has been handicapping dogs at Wonderland since 1962. Now he drives from his house in Peabody several days a week, to play a handful of races and reminisce about the nights when wise guys like Bobby the Hat, Jake the Snake, Louie the Lug, and others held court and dispensed counsel to up-and-coming bettors.

“We all come in and remember the old days,’’ he said, standing among losing race and lottery tickets and discarded programs. “It used to be fun here. We’d come in and laugh with our buddies and shoot the bull about what dogs we liked. There’s still a thrill of betting a couple of bucks on a dog you like, and if he wins you feel good.’’

A few yards away, Frank McCarthy lifts his pen and marks a dog program. McCarthy, who is 86, leaves his house in Dorchester every morning and takes the subway to Wonderland.

McCarthy has been betting on dogs at Wonderland for 70 years. These days he spends a few hours at the park betting $2 a race.

“It’s a pastime. It breaks up my day. Without it I’d be gonzo,’’ he said.

A retired machine shop owner, McCarthy said most of the research he conducts before each race ends up as wasted time. Lately, he’s been bringing dice to the park and rolling them to select a dog number.

He puts his program down, fiddles with his pen, and talks about the wise guys who used to line the walls back in the 1940s.

“They were something,’’ he said.

McCarthy said he still thinks about a night in 1947 when he almost won a superfecta.

“I had three dogs coming down the stretch. The third dog was supposed to close but he didn’t,’’ he said wistfully. “If he closed I would have had 75 grand.’’

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com.