End draws near for Wonderland racing

Regulars remember when track thrived

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / September 7, 2009

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REVERE - As the sun set in the distance, bathing the grungy track in a warm glow, Kenneth Miller coolly sized up the first batch of greyhounds from a creaky lawn chair.

Around him, fellow regulars paced and puffed, tossing cigarette butts amid the litter of losing tickets on the cracked asphalt.

Some were middle-aged fathers who had promised to stay away, others widowers with nowhere else to go. A weathered Vietnam vet in a wheelchair pumped $30 into a lottery vending machine. An elderly woman in a sari used a magnifying glass to watch a simulcast race on a TV monitor. Miller fixed his eyes on the dirt oval.

Post time at Wonderland Greyhound Park. With the sudden whir of a mechanical rabbit, the dogs were off. And the 68-year-old Miller, sun on his face, a $2 bet in his hand, summed up what all those watching seemed to feel.

“I love the live races,’’ he said. “Always have. This is my pastime, I guess you could call it.’’

Sadly for Miller and kindred spirits who think of Wonderland as a second home, live dog races at the track have entered their final days. The voter-approved ban on greyhound racing, which takes effect in January, means this summer’s season will be Wonderland’s last, with the final race scheduled to run by Sept. 18.

“I’m going to have to find something else to do with myself,’’ Miller said hesitantly, as though startled by the idea. “But I haven’t the slightest idea what.’’

Simulcast racing will continue, but the long-term fate of the park remains in question. Owners of Wonderland and Raynham-Taunton Greyhound Park, which will continue live racing until the ban takes effect in January, are pressing lawmakers to allow slot machines at the state’s four horse and dog tracks.

To a stranger, Wonderland can seem a dingy, lonely haunt that has seen better days. Some days the park is nearly empty, save for a few scattered old-timers staring blankly at simulcasts. But on live racing nights, there appears a fraternity of dedicated regulars who remember when the track crackled with life, jammed with cheering fans, and who return now as though to make those days reappear.

“I’ve had a lot of good times here,’’ said Robert Puopolo, a 60-year-old Malden resident who has come to Wonderland for some 40 years. “Now the electricity is gone, but you keep coming because you always have.’’

Puopolo said that when he was a young man he would head to Wonderland early in the evening in the hopes of turning a few bucks into a night on the town. It didn’t work all that often, but sometimes it did. And that was enough.

“You’d grab that golden nugget, fly out the door, and try to spread it around,’’ he said. “When it ran out, you came back.’’

Now Puopolo’s hair is silver, and he comes more to pass the time than to pad his wallet. He says he will come as long as he can, live racing or not, since he can’t think of alternatives. Old habits die hard, he said wistfully. Wonderland, with its predictable rhythms and gritty charms, is an escape from the volatile world outside, he said, likening the track to a movie where you can lose yourself for a while.

“Where else would we go?’’ he asked, looking to the sky for answers. “We’re all too old for the bars, and I don’t want to be just sitting at home in the rocking chair.’’

There are plenty like him, like Ed Casto, 72, who has been coming twice a week for 50 years. He comes now on nights his wife has friends over to play mah-jongg. And Charlie White, a 54-year-old from Worcester who takes the train in a couple of times a week.

“I started coming here in 1973,’’ he said, recalling the track’s past with as much detail and affection as he recalls his own. In many ways, they are one and the same, he said. “This place had 2,000 people a night, easy. Now it’s gone downhill. It’s too bad, but it’s still a great time.’’

Wonderland opened in 1935, on the site of a former amusement park, and has held dog races ever since, hosting some of the sport’s most famous competitors. But in recent years attendance has plunged, forcing the track into financial quicksand. The owners barely contested the ballot initiative to end dog racing. It was slot machines or bust.

Employees at the track, however, remain bitter over the ballot initiative, in which proponents denounced dog racing as cruel and accused tracks and kennels of mistreating dogs.

“To me it’s all lies,’’ said Freddy Archambault, a 24-year-old from Lynn who leads the dogs to the track before the race. “I know personally that the dogs are treated with great respect. There’s no other way to say it.’’

Archambault has worked with Wonderland’s dogs for five years, and struggles to say what comes next. He just wants to savor the time he has left.

“These dogs are beautiful,’’ he said. “They are incredible animals.’’

Jim O’Donnell, a kennel owner from Middleton who trains 60 dogs, is both bitter and wistful. He is angry that voters took away his livelihood and deprived the animals of doing what he says they were born to do, and what they love. They did the same to him, he said.

“I’ve done it all my life. What else am I going to do?’’ he asked. “Why is it I can’t follow my American dream?’’

Such passion is rare at the track, however. By 9 p.m. or so, some 300 people have gathered, but many ignore the races outside the window for those beamed onto their personal television. Conversation is minimal, and cheers are rare.

“I don’t win much, I don’t lose much,’’ said Eddie, a thick man in thick work boots. “I’m just killing time.’’