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Friday, April 6, 2018

Yes, there were upsets, especially in the first two rounds of the $34,000 Hound Madness Stakes at Southland Park Gaming & Racing. Sound familiar? If anyone watched what went down in the first two rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this past month, it should.

Yet, when it all boiled down to the championship match, two heavyweights (and favorties to make it there in the first place) had the 13th race on Saturday matinee’s performance on March 31st to themselves. It would indeed be a battle of two greyhounds currently riding the prime of their careers. Both were riding flat our race winning streaks since the tournament began, and most of those victories were in fashions that left little doubt they were the superior greyhounds in their respective races.

One finalist, FLYIN JIGGLYPUFF (Lester Raines Kennel) made a name for himself early on in his career. About this time last year, he broke in at Tri-State in West Virginia and accomplished a feat that is rare, no matter which racetrack you are at. He went undefeated in his only five starts there, nearly running the grading ladder from maiden to grade “A”. Three of those five wins were by double digit margins while the final two were still dominate by 8 ½ and 5 lengths going away respectively. All things pointed to this red male being too talented to leave at Tri-State and he hopped the soonest ride to Southland he could find.

When he arrived in early May, he took a couple of weeks getting accustomed to the new racing surface he was destined to perform at the highest level at. His schooling race in late May was the first defeat he had tasted in nearly two months, where he ran a close second place effort in a five dog schooling race. That taste was washed out fairly quickly however, and FLYIN JIGGLYPUFF rattled off three straight wins launching him into Southland’s toughest grade, “AA”. He has never left it.

He competed well and made the finals of the Darby Henry Male Sprint Championship during the Festival of Stakes this past October. He competed in and won three different races during the “Two For The Money” Stakes in early winter, but couldn’t pull of the two wins against the championship field needed to claim that title. Top grade wins and “in the money” finishes would continue into the 2018 racing season and the whole body of work led to him being crowned the #1 seed in the Midwest Region.

\His competitor would be a red fawn male by the name of KONOMI (A Ray Kennel). This son of former great SH AVATAR also made waves, but further south at a small track on the east coast of Florida, Melbourne Greyhound Park. Although down there he was racing against six dog fields, the distance and consecutive nature of his victories was still impressive. He would go on to have nine starts at Melbourne, winning 8 of them and finishing runner up in a race one time. However, instead of Southland, owner Robert Hardison decided to send this talented youngster to Wheeling Island as Spring was breaking on the banks of the Ohio River where he was going to compete in the Wheeling Island Invitational race (kin to the Great American Greyhound Futurity).

Once at Wheeling Island, this youngster didn’t miss a beat (sound familiar?). He won his first two races by 9 and 7 lengths respectively, but once he reached top “AA” competition there, sputtered a little at times, but also had some nice races, including winning one by 5 lengths. Once qualifying began for the Wheeling Island Invitational, he got stronger as the event progressed. Although he didn’t win any of the first three rounds of qualifying, he two seconds and a third was more than enough to advance to the next set of qualifying rounds. He went undefeated from there, as three straight victories captured the championship in this event just in time to transfer his talents to the banks of another great river, the Mississippi, as he arrived at Iowa Greyhound Park (formerly Dubuque Greyhound Park) early in the summer last year.

Three straight wins at that track by dominate fashioned signaled that his championship was not a fluke event. As the season progressed, he won seven out of eight races at one point but just missed his second major stakes win when he finished second in the Iowa Breeders Classic on their closing day. Another step up in class was in store as he hopped the next ride to the “big house”, Southland and arrived in early November. As in his previous three stops, KONOMI wasted little time winning races. He won his first three career starts at Southland, including his first top “AA” event. This wouldn’t be a fluke as the Scott Robinette star would win multiple top grade races as the calendar turned and progressed into 2018. All those accolades ended up earning KONOMI a #2 seed in the South Region.

Both greyhounds breezed through the “tournament” during the Hound Madness qualifying structure, where you just had to beat the greyhound you were bracketed with (not necessarily win the race). Both finished no worse than second during any round straight up in the ENTIRE race, more less one on one versus a competitor. While they didn’t end up facing each other in any of the five rounds leading to the championship race, the betting public saw KONOMI as the better greyhound, willing to be him down to ten cents on the dollar as the odds on favorite to win the straight up match-race for the crown. FLYIN JIGGLYPUFF was used to this designation (being the favorite) just as much as KONOMI was, which seemed to at least guarantee a competitive race between the two.

And then the race happened. KONOMI did receive the #1 post , although this becomes less important in a match-race as FLYIN JIGGLYPUFF was positioned just two doors down in post #3. Both had finish, both are known to get out of the box quickly. In most cases, the winner of this event is decided in the run to the first turn, and this race would prove once again to be no exception to that rule. Although it wasn’t without some early suspense.

When Rusty passed by the Arkansas Course starting box and the lid opened, Konomi popped the lid on cue and quickly got to a little more than a length lead over Flyin Jigglypuff but that was about all the lead he could muster. The white blanket quickly made that lead up and drew nearly side by side entering the first turn but carved out a small ½ length lead midway in the turn and increased it to a full length going into the backstretch. But, that is where the lead length stopped increasing and became steady, leaving those to wonder if Konomi had enough late kick to gain that ground back up and then eventually pass his rival.

That answer came soon enough in the far turn. Flyin Jigglypuff smartly stayed close enough to the rail to not only maintain the one length cushion, but block Konomi from gaining any ground simply by running the shortest route around the track against the rail. This caused Konomi to go to his competitor’s outside hip, not only increasing the amount of ground he had to cover, but by this point in the race, also loosing precious time before the finish line. That combination proved to be critical, not only to Flyin Jigglypuff’s victory, but sealed the fate and possibility of any comeback.

But it didn’t seal any talk about who the better greyhound was. The race was so close that many felt if you ran that race ten times, it would likely be a 50/50 split on who wins any individual race. The one thing that won’t be divided after that race however, was the championship blanket and trophy and the $15,000 first place added purse that went to trainer Ken Lesperance, greyhound owner Vince Berland and the Lester Raines Kennel.

Next stop for both will likely be the Southland Derby Stakes coming up in June. If it plays out anything like this race did, another rematch of sorts in a championship race should be very interesting!

  from left to right) – Breanna Mansfield (assistant trainer), Ken Lesperance (trainer), Sue Phillips (assistant trainer), Malik Brownlee (leadout), T’Marcus Gaines (racing fan), Kevin Lidey (assistant racing secretary)

Shane Bolender