On summer weekends at Benz-Visco Sports Park on Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road, there are typically groups of young football and soccer players or cheerleaders practicing or competing at their chosen sport. On a recent weekend, however, the athletes there had four legs instead of two: some of the fastest dogs in the country were competing at the North American Whippet Racing Association's Nationals and Derby.
Groups of five or six dogs at a time raced each other on one of the green manicured playing fields at Benz-Visco, chasing pieces of white cloth attached to a small electric sled mounted on a cable laying on the ground. And these dogs are not just speedy, they are amazingly fast -- Whippets are capable of speeds of up to 35 miles an hour, and though the larger Greyhounds excel over longer distances, Whippets are faster off the mark and at short distances and turns. With their lithe, muscular little bodies, Whippets are truly incredible runners.
The Nationals held in Tehachapi on the weekend of Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 marked the 50th anniversary of the Southern California Whippet Association's founding, and the event attracted Whippet owners from as far away as Alberta and British Colombia in Canada, Indiana, Washington, Oregon and all over California. A total of 60 dogs competed on the straight track event on Saturday and 71 dogs during the oval track races on Sunday.
Visiting participants praised the conditions at Tehachapi: clean air, cooler temperatures, and a clean, well-maintained facility.
The fact that the event was held in Tehachapi was no accident, since the Nationals Chair for 2013 was Stallion Springs resident Susan Burt. She and her husband Dave are Whippet enthusiasts who have each been involved with these distinctive dogs since the 1970s, and they continue to race their sleek dogs Mouse, Cymba and Jolee.
"I got my first Whippet in 1974 as a pet, and I had horses at the time and was mostly into them," Sue told me. "I was told that there was a local club in Southern California that held races so I went to a meet and I was hooked. I shifted my main focus from horses to Whippets, because that meet sparked my interest in racing because it is so exciting and the dogs love it."
Therein lies a huge difference between Greyhound racing, which in some states is done for money like horse racing, with big prize money, wagering, and sometimes unethical treatment of dogs that don't excel, and Whippet racing, which is conducted purely for fun by people who want to exercise their pets at competitive meets. There are a variety of competitive events for people with pet working dogs, like sheepdog trials for Border Collies or dog agility contests for a variety of breeds, and Whippet racing falls into that category.
"These dogs are absolute pets first and racers second, they live in the house and sleep on people's couches and beds," Sue emphasizes. "This is strictly amateur and for fun -- there is no prize money or betting, the Whippets don't chase live animals and our dogs certainly aren't discarded if they don't win. These are pampered pets."
Whippets average between 15 and 30 pounds and stand a little under two feet high at the shoulder. With their extremely slender silhouette, Whippets often attract stares from those who aren't accustomed to them, particularly when most American dogs tend to be obese. These dogs aren't underfed, however, they've simply been bred to have a racing physique, and working Whippets are healthy, hearty and have few health problems -- hip dysplasia, which plagues some breeds of dogs, is very rare among racing Whippets.
The Saturday race at the Nationals held in Tehachapi was a straight course of about 200 meters, and the Sunday oval track was about 350 meters. The dogs who ran all seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves, with wagging tails and an air of excitement before and after the brief race. There were ribbons and prizes for the dogs who competed, and a lot of camaraderie and enjoyment for their owners.
"The Nationals were a real success, and I think everyone enjoyed themselves," Sue said. "We absolutely couldn't have done it without all the support and help from Benz-Visco Sports Park, including John and Claudia Buckley of AYSO, Lee White, and the Paul Benz family. We also had support and donations from local businesses, including Albertsons, Ryan Eaton and Sons Concrete, Old Towne Nursery, JD Services, Lisa Carmel Photography and Honest Kitchen. Tehachapi is very supportive of events like these and our community helps to make it possible."
It won't be next year, but it is likely that the NAWRA Nationals will eventually return to the Tehachapi Mountains, and speedy dogs will again sprint across green grass for the pure joy of running...
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to: [email protected]