Delmer was a greyhound racing champion. In retirement, it was a blunder.
The first time I laid eyes on Delmer, his name was not Delmer.
It was Slatex Exxon, one of the Slatex racing greyhounds that had a reputation for being very fast and very, well, you’ll see. Just a guess, but maybe the oil giant had bought their naming rights, like it was a football stadium or a college bowling alley or something.
I first met him in the backyard of a woman’s house north of Harrisburg, just as he had just come off the trail.
At that time, my ex-wife and I had Lester, a very neurotic greyhound with OCD. We had just lost Lester’s mate, Norman, and Lester needed another greyhound to keep him company and tell him what to do. Lester was like that.
While looking for another greyhound, we got in touch with the woman who ran Keystone Greyhounds, and she told us that they were getting several dogs from a track in Wheeling, West Virginia, on a Saturday and we were invited to come and meet the dogs to see if any of them would suit Lester.
We arrived before the dogs arrived, and when the van backed up to the gate of the fence surrounding the woman’s garden, they opened the back and this dog sprung out of the van. He sprinted across the yard, full speed ahead, and ran headfirst into the wooden fence. He fell and then got up, walking in the yard as if nothing had happened.
I thought, “That’s the dog.”
We took him home that day.
A canine version of Secretariat
He met Lester and they seemed to get along. Lester was delighted to see him, but Delmer wasn’t too impressed. Delmer walked around the yard and then the house, found the sofa and lay down, twisting on his back, his feet pointing up at the ceiling. He was at home.
It was christened Delmer, after the character in the Coen Brothers film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou”. Like the character, he was, shall we say, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but, again, like his namesake, he was sweet. (For context, my first greyhound was named Homer, after Homer Simpson or the Greek poet. Norman, the smartest greyhound to ever live, was named after Norman Einstein – see below – and Lester in honor of legendary guitarist Les Paul or bluegrass great Lester Flatt.)
Delmer was the fourth greyhound to come into my life. The first was Homer, who never raced. When I checked his running record he didn’t have one so I called his home track in Connecticut and ended up talking to a trainer who said he remembered Homer. On his first run he ran out of the gate and when he saw the people in the stands he ran to the rail and started jumping up and down, wagging his tail so hard he l ‘spilled.
After Homer’s death from osteosarcoma – a fairly common condition among sighthounds – came Norman. Norman was too smart to run. It seemed like he thought the idea of chasing a mechanical rabbit around a track was stupid. He loved bread and one morning I walked into the kitchen to find him standing on the kitchen counter munching on a loaf of bread. How he ended up there, anyone could guess. He was named Norman because a while back on an NFL show, former quarterback and announcer Joe Theismann challenged the idea that a certain coach was a genius. He said, “A genius is someone like Norman Einstein.”
Then there was Lester. Lester never raced because he seemed too neurotic to do so. He had a short attention span and OCD – he couldn’t walk around a room without touching his nose to a stereo speaker or a pile of books on the coffee table or whatever.
Delmer was the first greyhound I had to race. And he was good at it, sort of. I found a YouTube video of one of his races where he ran away from the gate, taking the lead. When the race was over, there was barely another dog in the frame. It was like watching a canine version of Secretariat. I looked at his race record and he had run about 100 races. The record had a section describing her performance, and Delmer’s was mixed. Either he won the race or he didn’t finish after hitting another dog and falling. Makes sense.
He and Lester got along well. Well, Lester got along well with him. Delmer seemed to tolerate Lester. He practically ignored Lester in the house. In the yard, at least when he was younger, Delmer ran in a circle, digging an oval-shaped dirt path in the grass. Lester was trying to chase after him but couldn’t keep up. Lester would then try to cut him off and Delmer would simply reverse course and run the other way. After a while, Lester stood aside and watched Delmer run. They were playing and having fun in the yard. When Delmer had had enough and wanted to come into the house, I had to make sure I was there to open the sliding glass door as he ran out onto the patio. If I didn’t, he’d run headfirst into the door.
In the house, they looked like roommates. They would lie on the couch together, one at each end of the couch, Lester lying down normally and Delmer on his back with his feet up.
The smartest greyhound in the world?
After my marriage dissolved, I got custody of Lester and Delmer. We would go to Rocky Ridge County Park and hike the trails and go for walks, Lester walking beside me while Delmer weaved back and forth and tugged on the leash. When we met other people and their dogs, Lester was a little wary. Delmer wanted to meet them and be friends. He seems to get upset when other dogs don’t like him.
Over the years, Delmer has mellowed. He was trotting around the yard, but he seemed tired of running. He just lay on the couch and did nothing. Sometimes I had to check if he was still breathing.
Just two years ago, Lester fell ill – cancer. He died in November 2020.
I considered getting another greyhound to keep Delmer company, but as the weeks turned into months, it seemed like Delmer was happy to be the only dog in the house.
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When I lay down on the sofa to watch TV or read, he would climb up next to me, lay a little beside me, on my legs, rest his head on my thigh and look at me the same way he looked at me when I was eating pizza and he knew a crust would come his way. Sometimes he would climb on top of me, which wasn’t as cute as you might think considering he was 75 pounds of bone and muscle. I said a curse or two and asked him to let me go, but he just stared at me, with a kind of puzzled look on his face. It was the same kind of expression he had when I periodically asked him, “Who is the smartest greyhound in the world?” He was still looking at me quizzically, his expression saying, “I don’t know.”
He was an affectionate dog. Dogs, in general, are like that, full of unconditional love for human beings who give them food and a couch to sleep on 23 hours a day. (The late and great comic Norm MacDonald did quite a bit on this, pointing out that Hitler had a dog that loved him.) Delmer was very affectionate and lay on the couch looking at me like I was his whole world. His favorite thing was when I rubbed his ears and he moaned in ecstasy, what is called an “eargasm” in greyhound circles.
A few weeks ago, Delmer had a lump on his neck, which swelled up. I took him to the vet, who examined him and told me the bad news. Delmer had lymphoma. At his age, they couldn’t do much. I remember the vet asking me if he had been more lethargic lately. I replied, “It’s a little hard to say.”
His last visit to the vet dates back to September 23. He was 12 years old.
This is what you sign up for
As much as I thought to myself – and others who asked about him – this is what you sign up for when you get a dog, it was tough. As he lay on the blanket on the floor of the vet’s office exam room, I told him that I loved him and that I was sorry.
It seems very strange now. For years, Delmer woke me up at 2 or 3 a.m., wanting to go out. If I ignored him, he would leave me a surprise on the floor.
For the past few days, I’ve woken up in the single-digit hours, expecting to hear him outside my bedroom door, his nails snapping on the wooden floor as he paces in front of the door.
But there is only silence.
Columnist/reporter Mike Argento has been on staff at the York Daily Record since 1982. Contact him at [email protected]