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When in Rome . . .

Having lived for a stretch in Rhode Island, where I spent many a lonely late-night watching televised greyhounds race circles around an old 13-inch black-and-white, dreaming of the splendor of the races but never actually making it to the track myself, my priorities are clear. After a week in Rome, I lure my date far from the throngs crowding the Colosseum, out beyond where hip, quaint Trastevere gives way to a working-class neighborhood of drab modernist high-rises bristling with TV antennas and the usual Roman array of competing fascist, communist and football-club graffiti. On the wide green banks of the Tiber, a pack of dogs ambles by, apparently unaware of the feats of grace and glory about to be achieved by their noble cousins, the greyhounds, just a few hundred yards away. For across the river and down a dark driveway between a rubble-strewn lot and a roadside plastic-lawn-furniture sale is the Cinodromo di Roma, the dog track, one of the few treasures Rome shares with the immortal cities of Lincoln, Rhode Island, and Jacksonville, Florida. Its sign reads ”Corse di Levrieri“ (”Greyhound Races“) in emerald script, as a crimson greyhound, which from this distance more closely resembles a tortoise, blinks proudly above it.

Inside, beneath bare fluorescent bulbs, lone men linger and smoke to the sound of distant barking, small children attempt to scale the fence that separates the track from the bleachers, middle-aged couples sit sullenly in three tiers of plastic chairs. Across the track, above a small cafe, a hefty chanteuse with red hair extensions sings dismal Italian love songs to the assembled gamblers, lit by the blue glow of a bug zapper. The occasional bat flickers in and out of the lights. ”This is a very romantic place,“ observes my date, whose heart I‘ve ventured 7,000 miles to win back and upon which I have only the most tenuous hold.

We buy beers and a program, and inspect the stuffed rabbit that lures the dogs around the track. It’s white and fluffy and bound with duct tape to a miniature toboggan. It looks a bit chewed, as if some overzealous mutt once attained the unattainable and tackled it. A morose fellow with a pooper-scooper inspects the track‘s ill-combed sand for stray turds.

I put down 5,000 lire (about $2.50) on the second race, employing the time-honored method of betting on the dog with the coolest name. My choice is obvious, a frisky pooch named Bigben. Bigben, I decide, will run for me. Our fates are joined. Wearing a dashing blue sweater emblazoned with the number 2, Bigben is smaller than the other dogs, but he’s won two of his last three races and he‘s brindled like a tiger.

”Look at him,“ I say. ”He’s beautiful.“ He shivers a little, despite the heat.

”He looks terrified and underfed,“ says my date. Bigben quivers as his handler fits a wire muzzle over his snout and tugs him down the track.

”Look at him move,“ I say. ”He‘s got a real spring in his step. He’s spring-loaded.“

”He‘s neurotic,“ she says. ”I’m not saying I‘d bet on anyone else, but he’s definitely the most neurotic.“

The dogs are loaded into yellow starting cages. Their handlers jog across the field to wait by the finish line. The rabbit begins to hum. Soon it‘s whizzing around the track, its every rattle echoing the tremors of my heart. The gate opens and the dogs are off, in furious pursuit. Except for Bigben. He lags from the start, unenthused, and finishes a good 100 yards behind the pack. I have never seen such a miserable performance. A cur named Felipe, in a garish red outfit, takes first place. Bigben, on his way back to the kennels, is led by the stands on a tight leash, panting but unashamed, even swaggering a bit. ”I hope they kill him,“ I say.

My date shakes her head. ”This doesn’t bode well for you.“

I buy another beer and put another 5,000 on a dog named Bilbao, a long shot at 6-to-1, covering myself with 5,000 on Zoom, who‘s favored at 3-to-1. They look alike, pretty white dogs with nut-brown heads. Bilbao won’t stop barking. The singer has moved on to Annie Lennox, ”Here Comes the Rain Again“ distorted surreally over the crackling PA. Bilbao barks and barks. Dejected, I pay no attention, sucking at my beer and inspecting the gum and cigarette butts on the concrete floor. The rabbit whines across the track. The dogs are off and running, Bilbao dead last, Zoom in the middle of the pack, until, in the very last seconds of the race, Bilbao closes the gap, pulls ahead and, unbelievably, wins the race. I go crazy, jumping and shouting, almost barking with delight. I hug my date, and squeeze. Though her money was on Zoom, she‘s smiling. She squeezes back. For a moment in the Eternal City, all is right with the world.

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