Cutline: In the 1930s, greyhounds were escorted to the starting gates by nattily uniformed attendants at the Clay County Kennel Club.
ORANGE PARK – Greyhounds have been racing in Orange Park, with only a few gaps, for almost a century. During that time, the track has had many names but the locals have always called in simply – the dog track.
It all started in 1926, when a group of heavy hitters from out of town announced the opening of the Seminole Kennel Club at the southeast corner of U.S. Highway 17 and today’s Wells Road. Greyhound racing was struggling for acceptance as a sport and was barely five years old in other parts of the country.
These guys were on the cutting edge of the sport and certain they had invented a surefire way around the Florida laws prohibiting pari-mutuel betting by selling shares in the dogs and calling it investing.
The grand opening on May 22 went as planned with over 5,000 fans playing Wall Street titans and screaming their throats raw cheering for their portfolios. Monday night was a different story when the Clay County Sheriff and his deputies waded hip deep into the Wall Street wonks and hauled the employees off to jail.
The property went back to being a popular location for locally organized rodeos
Then in December 1931, the Clay County Kennel Club opened amid much pomp and ceremony. Some say palms were greased in Tallahassee because by then pari-mutuel betting was legal in Florida.
Still, all was not perfect. A mechanical malfunction caused the rabbit to dawdle in one race and be overtaken and reduced to wires and fur by the dogs, so all bets were off. Things were dicey for a moment, but the crowd decided to laugh not riot and opening night was a success and no one went to jail.
Of particular note during the five -ear incarnation as the Clay County Kennel Club was the introduction of monkey jockeys for one special race at the end of every 10-race card.
With names like Casey Jones, Ready To Go and No Foolin’ the tiny primates paraded onto the track wearing regulation jockey silks and jodhpurs under high collared oilskin capes.
They certainly added another level of competitiveness to the festivities. It was not unusual for two jockeys to become locked in squealing fisticuffs while their greyhound steeds labored to complete the race.
Most of the track’s customers were out of towners from Duval County and beyond. Folks in Clay County, especially Orange Park, were grateful for the jobs. Times were hard and had been for some time. Getting a night job allowed for free days to work turpentine, tend crops, haul timber, cut railroad ties or any of the myriad of things they did to put food on the table.
The Dog Track parking lot provided a ready market for moonshiners to peddle their wares. But, they had to work out a deal with Duval County shiners or someone would have been cut. Plus they had to keep it controlled or the law would close them down.
The concession stand was staffed with local women well known for being top notch cooks who kept flawless kitchens. People weren’t accustomed to eating food cooked at home where they knew it was safe or at a church or family picnic where they knew who made what.
They wore white uniforms and hats that mimicked nurses. At the end of the night they were allowed to take home any leftover popcorn. A generation of children in Orange Park grew up eating a bowl of popcorn with milk and sugar for breakfast.
Children in Orange Park grew up going to the track but never going in because no one under 21 was allowed by law. Dads would park along the fence facing Wells Road and kids piled out and went looking for a knot hole.
From 1935 to 1946, the fenced track was dark, a victim of World War II.
The third grand opening at the end of the war was the charm and the Orange Park Kennel Club continues ever re-inventing itself to adjust and adapt. Orange Park and the dog track have grown up together for almost a century.
That longstanding tradition, however, will end on Dec. 31, 2020, when Amendment 13, which bans dog racing, goes into effect.