With Arizona ending live greyhound racing, it's the end of an era long coming. Where the state once had five tracks, the only one left was in poor Tucson, which couldn't even keep a slice of Spring Training. The track in Phoenix closed to live racing in 2009. Changing tastes, animal activists and, especially, the proliferation of tribal casinos did in the pastime.
But once upon a time, it was a big deal. Before Phoenix Greyhound Park became a swap meet and was painted, like so much of the town, brown, it was one of the city's premier entertainment attractions. The golden age was from the 1950s through the 1970s. Opening in 1954, Phoenix Greyhound Park at 40th Street and Washington was a neon-lit palace where middle-class couples and compulsive gamblers mixed with the city's elite — and members of its extensive population of mobsters. Betting was legal. And a pre-video-device audience thrilled to dogs racing chasing a mechanical "lure" around the track. The park promised glamor, excitement, and was highly advertised ("there goes the rabbit, rabbit, rabbit!").
The extent of organized crime's penetration of dog racing in Phoenix remains an important, and controversial, element of the mystery of the 1976 assassination of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles. After the blast and before he passed out, first responders heard Bolles say (a version of) "they finally got me...Adamson, Emprise, Mafia...find John Adamson..." Emprise was a sports conglomerate headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y. and controlled by the Jacobs family. It held a controlling interest in Arizona dog tracks.
Emprise was found to be associated with organized crime figures and convicted in Los Angeles of racketeering in 1972. The allegations involved taking a hidden interest in a Las Vegas casino to skim the profits. In Phoenix, Emprise had been a target of Bolles' investigative reporting and focus of a crackdown by the state Racing Commission in the early 1970s. Even so, the state allowed the company to keep its concessions, including at Phoenix Greyhound Park. Emprise's Phoenix partner was the Funk family And it had friendly ties to Kemper Marley, the powerful land-and-booze baron always lurking at the edge of the Bolles murder.
Phoenix is a small town, a tight web of connections. For example, a 2000 New Times article on presidential candidate John McCain and the his wife's beer fortune by John Dougherty and Amy Silverman contained this:
Emprise reorganized in Arizona as Ramcorp and was allowed to keep its lucrative concession contracts while its Los Angeles conviction was appealed. But all the company's proceeds from dog tracks were funneled through a trustee, former Mesa rancher and farmer Dwight Patterson. Patterson, according to the (Investigative Reporters and Editors), urged then-Arizona governor Raul Castro to appoint Kemper Marley to the three-member Arizona Racing Commission, a position Marley reportedly was eager to get. Marley would replace Robert Kieckhefer, who had been an opponent of Emprise.
Castro received more than $19,000 during his 1974 gubernatorial campaign from Marley, and another $5,000 from Marley's daughter -- colossal sums at the time for an Arizona political campaign. Castro appointed Marley to the racing commission in 1976. ...Bolles wrote a series of stories documenting Marley's questionable performance in appointive posts he'd previously held. Bolles' stories doomed Marley's appointment, forcing him to resign soon after being named to the Racing Commission.
Marley's liquor distribution empire was the precursor of the Hensley fortune (Cindy McCain's father Jim and uncle Eugene Hensley worked for Marley before striking out on their own after World War II, with Marley's backing). But as with so much else in the Bolles case, nothing could ever be proved against either Marley or Emprise. Or against Brad Funk, the heir apparent of the local family controlling Greyhound Park. However, circumstantial evidence connecting Funk with bomb-planter John Harvey Adamson is strong. One police theory was that young Funk was trying to impress his elders by taking revenge on Bolles. But Funk was never charged. No law enforcement officers who investigated the bombing were satisfied that justice was done.
Back to the dog track. Read enough of the Bolles reporting and Phoenix Greyhound Park is almost as important a place as the mob bars of Midtown Phoenix. Adamson himself owned a few racing dogs.
A very different state Legislature from today, led by Republican Burton Barr, spent years trying to clean up dog racing and its whiff of organized crime. Among other things, lawmakers forced the Emprise-Funk combination to divest some of their tracks in the state. By 1979, the Funks were gone from dog racing — bought out by Sportsystems Corp. (Emprise renamed and supposedly cleaned up). The trusteeship was short-lived. Not a season of million-dollar earnings was missed. Delaware North Cos., the renamed Sportsystems and labeled "a global leader in hospitality management and food service management," owned the track to the end.
Read more about the underbelly of the city, in the Phoenix Confidential archive.